The Boardwalk near the convention center, is filled with tourists during the annual New Jersey State Firemen's Convention in Wildwood.

Dale Gerhard

Firefighters came together at the Wildwoods Convention Center on Saturday to see the latest equipment at the annual New Jersey Firemen's Convention.

"It gives you a good opportunity to see what other companies are doing," said Lt. Bruce Chandler, of the Cecil Fire Company in Monroe Township, Gloucester County. "It's important to see what others are doing. Maybe there's something a little different or a little better."

More than 20,000 fire personnel were expected to attend the two-day event that ended with a parade Saturday afternoon. Some, however, were called to duty during the preparations.

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Many firefighters headed north as the Seaside Park and Seaside Heights boardwalk burned Thursday. Wildwood Crest was one of seven Cape May County crews to go to Seaside, manning their empty firehouses in case help was needed elsewhere in the area.

"We just wanted to help," said Tony Repholz, a 12-year veteran of the Wildwood Crest Volunteer Fire Company who was on the hour-plus firetruck ride to Seaside.

John Elefante had just left his home in Barnegat about an hour before the blaze. His department wasn't called, "but it still weighed heavy on their hearts," said his wife, Brandy.

A lot of the firefighters sent were forest firefighters, who knew how to handle fire fueled by heavy winds, he said. Cutting out a portion of the boardwalk ahead of the fire as a fire break, typical in fighting forest fires, helped slow it.

While no cause has been released, he said, some speculate it may have been electrical, an aftermath of saltwater on the lines caused by Hurricane Sandy. The damage from the hurricane also made it a challenge to get water on the fire, because many hydrants still are out of service.

"But wind was the bigger factor," Elefante said.

Meanwhile, the Wildwoods showed what new tools are available in fighting fires. It gave those who work in firefighting a chance to trade information.

"I wanted to be a firefighter since I was 3," said Matthew Schwalbe, of Shamong Township, Burlington County.

Just 16, he has been working for three months with the Indian Mills Volunteer Fire Company.

"When I was a little kid, I used to come here," Schwalbe said. "Now, I get to live the dream."

Repholz isn't sure his grandson will do the same.

"My grandpa is in the Fire Department," read the back of 2-year-old James Machio's shirt.

"He's just getting used to the sound of the trucks," Repholz said. "He's still a little scared."

Contact Lynda Cohen:


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