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'We've moved on': Questions linger in Sea Isle fire resignations

SEA ISLE CITY — Under scrutiny after a number of destructive fires, city officials began working this spring with the state to bring the volunteer fire department up to standards.

The state’s review of the department ended June 12, when the department’s chief and his two assistants were sent cease-and-desist letters because they were not certified to be in leadership positions. Copies of emails exchanged between police Chief Thomas McQuillen, who oversees the Fire Department as public safety director, and a state fire representative — obtained in an Open Public Records Act request by The Press of Atlantic City — reveal the depth of the problems in the city’s department, centered on a lack of training and record keeping.

Photos: Sea Isle City fire severely damages 3 duplex homes

They also show a working partnership — at least until the state discovered that individuals singled out for lacking “incident command” certifications were “re-installed” in leadership roles.

Questions remain as to how the ouster unfolded, and there are conflicting stories from the parties involved as to how it began. City officials say the issue has been handled.

“We’ve moved on,” McQuillen said.

The officials’ departure comes at a time when the Fire Department, and the city, have been scrutinized for their response to a number of destructive fires, including one in November in which an 89-year-old resident died.

Some residents have suggested switching to a paid department, as several firefighters have to drive from the mainland in the event of a fire, increasing response time, and fewer people are signing up to become volunteers, an issue that isn’t isolated to Sea Isle.

At the moment, there are 33 certified firefighters in Sea Isle, with eight certified for leadership positions, McQuillen said.

But the fallout from certain senior members working without certifications nevertheless threatens to deepen criticisms from both part-time and full-time residents.

In a public letter dated July 9, McQuillen said the city became aware certain firefighters were not up to date on their certifications during a performance review after an Easter morning fire that destroyed four residential units.

The state Division of Fire Safety, for its part, claims the inquiry began after an anonymous tip and a rash of highly publicized fires, said Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the division.

Cape May County Fire Marshal Conrad Johnson Jr., who was present for the review, did not respond to requests for comment. The city refused to disclose documents from the “after-action” review.

McQuillen, when reached for comment this past week, said the emails and his public letter speak for themselves.

In mid-May, McQuillen communicated with Craig Augustoni of the DCA about the fact some firefighters in leadership positions did not have necessary training or certifications for their positions. The two were in agreement that the situation needed to remedied.

On May 16, Augustoni provided McQuillen with a list of those who couldn’t be certified as firefighters because they could not produce needed documentation or did not turn it over, emails show.

Fire destroys at least two homes in Sea Isle City

On May 23, the Fire Department responded to a fire that spread from a car to a home. The next morning, Augustoni reached out to McQuillen again with a concern.

“I am writing to you because I received a phone call last night from one of the (Sea Isle Fire Department) members advising me that the City re-installed the Fire Chief Frank Edwardi as Fire Chief and Michael Ryan as the Assistant Fire Chief ... as you know both of these individuals are not in compliance with (state regulations),” Augustoni wrote May 24.

Augustoni retired July 1 as the South East Regional Fire Coordinator for the Division of Fire Safety’s Office of Fire Department Preparedness, a week before the ouster was first reported, and declined to answer any questions about his involvement.

The Fire Department’s chief, Frank Edwardi Sr., and his two assistants, Mike Tighe and Mike Ryan, were sent letters June 12 forcing them to resign their paid positions “until (they) obtain Incident Management Level 1 certification issued by the Division of Fire Safety.”

Edwardi and Ryan were unable to be reached for comment. Tighe declined to comment.

However, the three are not barred from firefighting duties if they secure the proper certifications, Petty said Tuesday.

“The required classes for the certifications could have taken months to complete. It would have left them in command even longer without the proper certifications,” said Louis Kilmer, head of the Bureau of Fire Code Enforcement and the DCA’s point man in Sea Isle since Augustoni’s departure.

Edwardi, a 45-year veteran of the department, told last week he said he wanted to retire in November for personal reasons. He said he only took the job, which he held for five years, because the city asked him to and he wasn’t told he needed the certifications. The city, he told, was passing the buck.

Kilmer said the responsibility of keeping certification records falls on the department.

That could explain why, in a May 9 email, McQuillen said firefighters were concerned about the state inquiry.

“Some of the current Officers are very concerned that their (sic) going to lose their houses because they don’t currently have some certifications or records don’t exist to show they have the training,” he wrote. “I have told them there will have to be some latitude, but they are all very nervous now and may not necessarily take my word on this topic.”

DAVID DANZIS / Staff Writer  

Fire broke out in June at a storage facility next to Two Chums Bait, Tackle and Boat Rentals in Sea Isle City’s Fish Alley.

Parasailing offers unparalleled view of the shore

OCEAN CITY — Cole Brennan can show you an unparalleled view of where New Jersey meets the ocean. It’s 350 feet above the rolling waves, and there’s nothing beneath your feet.

Sporting a beard and an aggressive tan line under his reflective sunglasses, Brennan motors his vessel out of the calm waters of the Great Egg Harbor Bay, under the Ocean City-Longport bridge and out to open water.

“It’s nice to do something to make people happy,” said Brennan, 33, a captain and general manager at FlyOCNJ parasailing. “Everybody’s smiling. You’re at a job where people are coming to have fun.”

He is, too.

“There’s no good reason to be out there if you’re not having fun,” he said.

That’s almost a life philosophy for Brennan, a Pennsylvania native who has had jobs down the shore for 20 years and in parasailing for 10. He’s only in Ocean City for two months a year, from mid-June to Labor Day. The rest of the year is spent taking vacationers parasailing off South Beach in Miami for FlyOCNJ’s parent company, H2O Sports Management. The people, and ocean, are different down there. His job is the same.

The ocean is rougher and colder off New Jersey than it is near Florida. But the weather is “touch-and-go” near Miami, where “rain forms over your head,” he said.

“Our weather here is a little more predictable,” Brennan said. “Right now it’s raining in Philly. That’s coming this way.”

The people are “heartier” here, too, and give the impression they’ve been on a boat before, Brennan said. In Miami, tourists from the middle of the country have suggested he was at fault for the boat’s rocking in the waves.

In Ocean City, Brennan’s shipmate, Bassem “Bass” Omar, a 21-year-old La Salle University student, takes photos and mans the crank that eases strapped-in vacationers up to the clear-blue sky.

“That’s off my bucket list,” said Milton Warrell, 64, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, as he glided back to the boat with his grandson Joey, 14, last week. “You get to see a lot.”

Brennan doesn’t go parasailing himself that often. He’s right at home behind the wheel.

Manning the controls, Brennan keeps things light on the water. He points out the innumerable skate fish burbling under the water’s surface. He says they’re served as scallops in Somers Point, and it isn’t clear if he’s joking.

Parasailers get a better view of the marine life from a bird’s-eye view.

“It was cool, you could see some fish and views of the Boardwalk and everything,” said Beth Hewitt, 36, of Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania. Her son Dan, 6, was a little on edge about the whole thing.

Brennan’s laid back persona helped get Dan semi-comfortable with the idea of going up in the parasail with his mother.

But the Hewitts’ flight was cut short by an equipment issue that necessitated a return to the dock. It was the first time Brennan had experienced the problem, he said.

Some days are harder than others, Brennan said. Conditions don’t always cooperate.

“But every day is a great day,” he said. “You’re outside, you’re in the sun, you’re having fun. I mean, it’s great.”

Sea Isle landlords self-inspect for fire safety. The system isn't endorsed by NJ.

SEA ISLE CITY — Every summer, Kevin Dougherty rents out his five-bedroom beach house, only two blocks from the water.

The prep is simple, he says.

His wife fills out a rental permit and inspection checklist printed from the city’s website, and submits it to the construction office annually, confirming the property has smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

But following a rash of damaging fires earlier this year, the Cherry Hill business owner wonders whether a stricter system would add another layer of security.

“I don’t know if (in-person inspections) would have stopped those,” he said. “But it may help.”

Four big blazes over the past year, which occurred under varying circumstances, culminated in the resignation of three “unqualified” city officials this month. The first came in November, followed by an Easter Sunday structure fire that destroyed four residential units. Over Memorial Day weekend, a family’s home was burned down, and a month later, another fire injured two people.

The incidents prompted calls for the city to pivot from a volunteer fire department to one with full-time, paid staff. At council meetings, some argued Sea Isle needs to take another look at building rules, response times and code enforcement.

In most shore towns, where thousands of visitors come and go throughout the summer, landlords fill out a rental permit application then schedule an in-person walk-through with the municipality. Summer rental check-ups are typically redone each year.

Sea Isle has a different system, and one that’s not endorsed by the state. Renters fill out a 25-question self inspection report, send it to the city and (given the right boxes are checked) earn certification. The city relies on an honor system.

Photos: Sea Isle City fire severely damages 3 duplex homes

Neil Byrne, the city’s construction official, said two code enforcement officers review select properties based on complaints. At any point, he said, they can inspect a rental property after sending a one-day notice to the landlord.

The state Division of Fire Safety doesn’t follow that practice in the more than 80 New Jersey towns it enforces the fire code in, including Buena Vista Township, Northfield, Somers Point and Port Republic.

But Byrne doubts in-person checkups would have prevented the recent fires, which were not at rental properties. In 2018, the city approved 1,813 self-inspections.

“It has nothing to do with it,” Byrne said. “We’ve never had any problems with the self-report.”

Ocean City’s code enforcement office, which schedules annual in-person rental exams, has two part-time code enforcement officers who last year went home to home for nearly 3,900 inspections.

Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer did not explain why the city follows a different practice, and said there are no discussions to change the process.

Tammori Petty, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, said the department ended such inspections in June 2018 following issues with “faulty certifications.”

Inaccurate responses and improperly installed and expired detectors had become a problem.

“Performing an inspection in lieu of accepting an affidavit not only ensures that the correct devices are present and working but also provides an opportunity for the Division staff to educate homeowners on the proper placement, maintenance and care of these vital life safety devices,” Petty said in an email.

David Buzby, the Atlantic County fire marshal, said in-person inspections are important because the fire code could change, and landlords may not be aware.

While the state doesn’t recommend self-certifications, they are allowed.

“A lot of houses are not up to date,” Buzby said. “This is our chance to get in there, make sure everything is right and save lives.”

Planning Board member Antimo Ferrilli, who has been vocal about the fires at City Council meetings, is unsure whether annual in-person inspections would help reduce the severity of fires.

Instead, he said, the Planning Board wants council to re-examine building codes for newly constructed “monster houses,” referring to the large, densely compacted mansions in Sea Isle.

In January, he said, the board sent a letter to the city with 12 recommendations for stopping devastating accidents. Ferrilli pointed to two: Mandating new construction have sprinklers and be built with noncombustible materials rather than flammable “cedar impression siding.”

The state Division of Fire Safety said towns are not allowed to require sprinklers in new construction.

“In duplexes, they don’t need sprinklers. That blows my mind,” Ferrilli said. “And these sidings have so many chemicals, they melt. ... It’s like a torch.”