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Charity’s column: This is Volunteer Park. What’s your emergency?

Two vital pieces of Shelter Island infrastructure went operational in the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend. Both are located at Volunteer Park on Bridge Street, a favorite stop for me and my dog Mabel during our morning walk.

I have not investigated how much they cost, which neighbors endorsed their construction or how vigorously the pros and cons were discussed in Town Board work sessions. I’m just here to report that if you have an emergency on land or sea in the vicinity of Volunteer Park, Shelter Island has you covered.

Being covered is especially nice when the emergency involves responding to the call of nature. For that urgency, thank goodness for the reopening of the Portland Loo, the public restroom on Bridge Street. It’s now accepting tourists, day-trippers and locals walking their dogs who suddenly realize that the hound is not the only one who has to go.

The ingenious design of the Portland Loo grants privacy to the user, while allowing someone outside to tell if someone is inside — much more effective than the green “Vacant” sign that slips into place when you exit a standard port-a-potty.

But the fine features of the Portland Loo pale in comparison to the second piece of infrastructure; the Town has built a new dock that extends from the northwest corner of the park about 60 feet into Dering Harbor, with a Shelter Island Fire Department fireboat tied up and ready to respond when needed.

When you’re near Volunteer Park, whatever your emergency, help is close at hand.

Heights resident Charlie Hergrueter seemed to know before anyone else in the neighborhood that a new dock was coming, but wasn’t sure why. With the transfer of Jack’s Marine to new owners, he was waiting to hear about the status of his mooring, and wondered if the new dock was related to the changes.

I live nearby, but I was surprised by the appearance of a new dock. I admit that my first thought was, will I be able to get my kayak around it at low tide?  Even the feral chickens that haunt the Heights were surprised to find new infrastructure on their waterfront. One rooster has been crowing about it for two weeks.

I became aware of it while ogling a frenzy of reproductive activity in a nearby osprey nest, too distracted to notice that Mabel was leaving the northwest corner of the park sniffing excitedly. By the time I felt a tug on the leash, she had crossed the catwalk (which she calls a dog walk) and was halfway down the ramp to two 40-foot floating docks that had definitely not been there the last time we visited.

I called the Police Department and asked Bay Constable Beau Payne what the new dock is for. “That dock is for the sole purpose of, emergency services. There is no public access except, obviously, for emergencies.” For instance, he said, of course you should pull up to the emergency dock if someone on your boat is hurt or bleeding.

He explained that the new dock is the last piece in a long effort to increase the Town’s marine infrastructure, and move away from private contracts. “We had to keep them — police and fire boats — at marinas. The Fire Department paid to keep a boat at Jack’s Marine, but we’ve moved away from that model.”

The change was proactive, not in response to a problem, but to avoid any in the future. “I don’t believe there was ever any issue. The boat was out at the end of the dock. Mike [Anglin, the previous owner] was clear with his patrons not to block the boat,” said Officer Payne. “The key takeaway is that we should not be paying to keep a boat at somebody’s dock when we’re a town of beaches and shorelines and marine infrastructure. We need to be able to have the tools available to do the job we’re expected to do.” 

In emergencies, a place without bridges has to rely on boats. With the addition of the Volunteer Park dock, there are now Town-controlled spots for police and fire boats at all three of Shelter Island’s main harbors — Coecles, West Neck and Dering.

When events such as the fireworks on Crescent Beach come around, the police boats and fireboat can be positioned in Dering Harbor, which is closer to the event.

If you have ever been in the company of a toddler who announces loudly that he has to go to the bathroom you know why it’s important that, like the emergency docks, Shelter Island’s public restrooms are located strategically around the Island, at Wade’s Beach, Crescent Beach, the Shelter Island Public Library and Volunteer Park.

Now the primary challenge rescuers will face responding to an emergency in the vicinity of Volunteer Park will be will be to find parking on Bridge Street.