Fire companies still paying the price for service during Sandy
Firefighters from Ocean City’s Station No. 2 await calls beneath the watchful eye of a copper butterflyfish and complete training exercises under a pastel painting of a lighthouse scene.
Since Hurricane Sandy inundated their firehouse — Deputy Chief Jim Smith said the building is likely to be condemned — they’ve taken up residence in a vacant condo across the street, amid beachhouse tchotchkes.
“It’s a change for the guys. We’re in a much smaller space than what we’re used to,” Smith said. “This is us trying to adapt and change.”
Similar scenes are playing out all along the Jersey Shore as fire companies in storm-ravaged towns are forced to get creative. The station may be in shambles and the equipment waterlogged, but the calls don’t stop.
Meanwhile, departments that already faced a financial crunch are now at the mercy of insurance companies, local authorities and the federal government as they seek to replace equipment and infrastructure. Nearly all of the affected departments are still unsure how much damage will be covered.
In Atlantic City, which has a station closed in the Chelsea Heights neighborhood, Chief Dennis Brooks said he’s playing a “wait-and-see game.”
“We’re at the mercy of the federal government,” he said. “FEMA’s been pretty good with emergency vehicles so far, as long as we can justify it and it’s all documented.”
Until the city can get the necessary funding to repair the closed fire station, Brooks said the department has made mutual aid agreements with Ventnor to help in responding to fires.
“It’s going to be a tough financial battle for us,” said Thomas Medel, president of the hard-hit Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Company on Long Beach Island.
Flood insurance will pay for physical damage to the building, but he said replacing equipment contaminated by saltwater remains a “gray area.”
Medel said most of the company’s equipment, from fire engines to turnout gear, was relocated to the mainland before the storm. But its use in the storm’s immediate aftermath exposed it to a more insidious threat than simple wind and rain: Salt water is gradually corroding everything it touched.
“We’re finding different things day by day,” he said. “As the equipment gets used, we’re finding other things wrong with it, so it’s not something we’re going to have an answer to in the next month. It’ll probably take years to figure out what damages we incurred.”
Fire engines that returned to the island have experienced problems with their air brakes and electrical systems. And one of the company’s oldest engines, from 1983, may now be unsafe to continue using.
“The doors don’t shut right because of rust,” Medel said. “With the swelling of the rust, you can’t get it open once you’re inside.”
In Surf City, eight miles north of Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, Fire President and City Councilman Peter Hartney has seen the same creeping problem. Insurance adjusters have already assessed his company’s building and vehicles, but the Sandy-related problems keep accumulating.
“It just takes some of the shelf life off” vehicles originally expected to last 20 to 25 years, he said. “We’ll eventually need to replace the whole vehicle.”
At the height of the storm, the Brigantine Fire Department rescued an estimated 175 people and took them to a nearby shelter. But acting Fire Chief Jim Holl said the repeated trips through up to 4 feet of salt water took a toll on the equipment.
Nearly three months later, Holl said he’s still in the process of submitting supplemental information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency about the two firetrucks that were lost. The department also has to make up a nearly $500,000 shortfall between the insurance payout and replacement costs.
“We have to tweak the paperwork a little,” he said. “They want to know who drove the truck for this call or that call — little things like that.”
In the meantime, the department has borrowed one truck from nearby Galloway Township and received a free Army surplus truck that was refurbished following tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, an “early Christmas present” for the department.
Beyond those short-term remedies, Holl said there’s a “great deal of uncertainty” when it comes to replacing the equipment lost.
“First off, we have to go through the budget process,” he said. “I can tell you it gets very contentious. The taxpayers don’t want their taxes going up, and that’s certainly understandable.”
In Ocean City, Smith said FEMA is paying 75 percent of the department’s temporary housing costs for their damaged station
“We expect to be out of (the condo) by May, when the price jumps up,” he said. After that point, he said, they may move into a temporary building next to the station.
Holl said he’s also concerned about future storms, particularly with the potential for more frequent and destructive storms due to climate change.
“We’ll try to craft some different ways of getting water on a fire in the middle of a flood,” he said. “What are you going to do when you’re the guy in charge and ... here’s (a) house and car on fire?”
The department’s success during Sandy was something of a Pyrrhic victory that it can’t afford to repeat.
“(The firefighters) did a good job, they stopped the fire,” Holl said. “But the consequence to that was we lost 50 percent of our firefighting capacity.”
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