When Rockland's volunteer firefighters combat a blaze, they're already up against a formidable enemy—high flames, limited vision and thick, choking smoke.
But often there is another, man-made obstacle that hinders rescue efforts— illegal housing that does not meet local zoning regulations.
When firefighters enter a burning house, they generally know where the bedrooms are, and make sure to sweep them first. But when a landlord converts a one- or two-family home into several illegal apartments, firefighters find makeshift walls, locked doors and cramped sleeping quarters in attics and basements.
"It's an unpredictable layout," explained Gordon Wren Jr., director of Rockland County's Fire and Emergency Services, Tuesday morning.
"And firefighters have to force entry into each room," added John Kryger, a Rockland Deputy Fire Coordinator as well as a longtime Rockland County volunteer firefighter.
Wren, Kryger and the county's volunteer firefighters have noted a proliferation of these illegal homes over the past few years. In April, a 107-year-old home in Valley Cottage sustained major damage when a . After responding, firefighters learned ; 17 residents were ultimately displaced, including nine children.
Kryger said the reasons for unlawfully dissecting a home boil down to one factor— money.
"These landlords buy cheap properties and hire contractors willing to subdivide illegally," he said.
The small rooms are then rented to tenants, many of them immigrants, for about $125 a month, Kryger said. The electrical and piping work is often haphazardly done, and the homes frequently lack the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors required by law.
In one Spring Valley abode, 28 people people were living in a single house. The landlord was collecting about $160,000 a year, tax-free, Kryger said. In Stony Point, fire authorities discovered a garage converted into many tiny living quarters.
Wren noted the problem is not unique to Rockland.
"Whatever is happening here is also happening in Westchester, Putnam and Orange Counties," he said.
Wren and Kryger, however, are leading an initiative to crack down on the "lucrative" and "dangerous" business of illegal housing, they said. A county-wide Housing Task Force—made up of municipal lawmakers, firefighters and health department employees—is currently laying the groundwork for an assault on the criminal conversions.
The all-volunteer force suggested a number of resolutions at a recent meeting, which include having at least one qualified firefighter appointed to every zoning and planning board in the county.
Another solution would be increasing fines aimed at landlords who carry out the illegal operations.
"If they go to court and the judge hits them with a $250 fine, that's the price of doing business," Kryger said. "But if they hit them with a $25,000 fine, that's not the price of doing business."
Further, the task force hopes fire inspectors can work more closely with the Rockland County Health Department, the Department of Social Services, the Section 8 Housing Inspection Program and other groups.
"We can get [the landlords] in a financial vice," Wren said about levying fines from multiple directions.
County efforts are also present on a larger scale—a state bill is currently in the making, and would "amend the executive law to impose a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $10,000, together with imprisonment for up to one year when the construction or use of a building impedes egress from the building during a fire or other emergency evacuation," according to its language.
Illegal housing in Rockland was the catalyst for the bill, Kryger said, and the proposed legislation is sponsored by Assemblymen Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a volunteer firefighter on Long Island.
Another motivation for the crackdown is Black Sunday, a Bronx blaze in 2005 that claimed the lives of two New York City firefighters and seriously injured four others. Two of the men hailed from Rockland County.
Wren and Kryger note they intend to follow through until the situation is remedied.
"We know it's going to be an uphill battle, but we have to start somewhere," Kryger added.
"It don't know any other county that's doing something similar," Wren said. "Rockland Fire Services have said, 'enough is enough.'"
Tipsters: Rockland County's Fire and Emergency Services can be reached at (845) 364-8800.