The Aviation Volunteer Fire Department’s home is a cramped office space on White Plains Road in a working-class section of the southeast Bronx known as Clason Point.
Members on night duty sleep in cots or in a camper parked out front. The unit relies on a small second-hand fire truck and two smaller rescue vehicles, including a truck nicknamed Leaks because of its persistent engine issues. There is a small buggy to patrol Orchard Beach in the summertime and a Jet Ski on hand for boating accidents in the East River.
Members monitor a police scanner and respond to emergency calls, uninvited by city authorities.
Such was the case until recently, when the struggling department was ordered to stop operating by the city’s fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano, who notified the unit that it was “operating without the proper training, equipment and authorizations,” and putting the public and city firefighters at risk.
Mr. Cassano told the volunteer squad to “immediately cease its operations and discontinue making any representations that A.V.F.D. is authorized by the City of New York or the F.D.N.Y. to provide emergency medical and firefighting services,” or face possible arrest of its members.
Aviation’s chief, Romeo Toro, 28, has temporarily stopped the 60 members from responding to emergencies, but still has them working their regular shifts and monitoring emergency calls and passing them on to the city 911 system.
Mr. Toro contests some of Mr. Cassano’s assertions, but also concedes that some of the group’s permits are dated or lapsed. He said he planned to negotiate, or sue, to get the department operating again.
“We just want to respond to our area, like we’ve been doing for 90 years,” said Mr. Toro, who was elected chief six months ago. “We’re going to fight this to the end. People say, ‘You can’t beat the biggest fire department in the world, you don’t have a chance.’ This is David versus Goliath.”
Mr. Toro said the squad was essential to the safety of the neighborhood, and routinely beat the closest fire company, Engine 96/Ladder 54, near the Bruckner Expressway, to most local emergencies.
Mr. Toro, who is also a paramedic instructor at a private training center in Brooklyn, said his department was mainly financed by contributions from its members, most of whom grew up in the area and still live nearby, including five current city firefighters who volunteer at Aviation while off duty.
Two weeks ago Mr. Toro and his deputy chief, James Pointer, rushed to a car accident on the Bruckner Expressway and began evaluating passengers. A chief from Engine 96 arrived and told a nearby police officer to arrest the two men, Mr. Toro said. The two volunteers were detained for a half-hour and released. The following day, a truck from Engine 96 pulled up to the tiny offices of the Aviation squad, not far from the Whitestone Bridge, to deliver a copy of the commissioner’s letter to Mr. Toro.
The Aviation department, which got its name from a local airfield, was formed in 1923 to help protect the beach bungalows and shoreline resorts in the neighborhood, which at time was largely Irish, Italian and Jewish. Back then, there were many small volunteer departments around the outskirts of the city, but many disbanded as the city department expanded. Of the 10 or so volunteer squads remaining in the city, Aviation members claim they have been the most active squad.
The membership has become largely black and Hispanic, reflecting the changing neighborhood. “If you read our original bylaws, they state that the department was only open to white males from ages 19 to 23,” Mr. Toro said. “We believe we’re being targeted now because we’re a minority department.”
Frank Dwyer, a Fire Department spokesman, dismissed this claim and said the only issue behind the order was safety. Aviation lacks city and state certifications and is no longer incorporated as a nonprofit, or properly registered to pay taxes, Mr. Dwyer said.
He added that the city department has virtually no problems with other volunteer fire and ambulance groups in the city. “This is the only one we’re having a situation with, because they are not certified and not a recognized group,” he said.
Mr. Toro disputed this and at the department’s headquarters this week produced aging documents as proof. There were a copy of the department’s original incorporation and a 1972 letter of recognition from the Bronx borough president.
The Aviation department is rebuilding after a rough decade, he said. On Sept. 11, 2001, members were at the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed. After the attacks, the department was flush with gifts totaling roughly $500,000 in money and equipment. There was also new fire truck from Goldman Sachs in 2002.
But by the mid-2000s the department became wracked with financial malfeasance and mismanagement, and its chief at the time departed in 2007 under a cloud, leaving the department broke.
But the remaining members persevered. They used their personal cars to respond to non-fire emergencies and gradually saved money to buy their current fleet of vehicles, which they still plan to expand to include a second fire truck.
Mr. Toro said that roughly half of the members have been trained at suburban fire academies. He said 15 members were scheduled to attend Nassau County academy in March, but that plans may now be in jeopardy.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we help keep the area safe,” he said, driving his department-issued Ford Explorer down some narrow lanes between bungalows and cottages near the water in a section called Harding Park.
“Show me a city fire truck that can get down these little streets,” he said.
“We’re not in this to look cool,” he said, back at the office where a member was coiling a fire hose. “Look at him on his hands and knees — does that look cool or sexy? Does that look fun?”