SEA ISLE CITY — After a number of destructive fires in 2019 brought scrutiny from state overseers and demands for answers from residents, the city updated its decades-old dispatching practices.
The city now dispatches firefighters, police and EMS simultaneously when a report of a fire on the island comes in, police Chief Thomas McQuillen said in a recent interview. McQuillen oversees the Sea Isle City Volunteer Fire Department in his role as public safety director.
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In October, a Press of Atlantic City review of city dispatch records and interviews with a former fire chief revealed the city had been sending police to scenes first to confirm the need for firefighting services, leading to costly response times. City officials had not publicly announced the changes, which The Press learned of during reporting for a follow-up article.
A purchase order obtained through an Open Public Records Act request shows the city ordered yearlong subscriptions for first responders to the app Who’s Responding? in July. Subscriptions, equipment and a setup fee totaled $1,800 paid to M.A.S.E. Concepts of Egg Harbor Township. A Police Department special order, also obtained through a public records request, states explicitly, “All Fire calls will be dispatched to Police, Fire and EMS simultaneously,” and had an effective date of Nov. 21.
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“We’re always looking to find the best ways to do things ... so in our continual evaluations of how we operate, we tweak them and tweak them and tweak them until we think they’re as good as they’re gonna get,” McQuillen said. “And we think that’s where we’re at at this point.”
The new dispatch system, however, doesn’t solve other issues within the department. On Nov. 29, according to dispatch records obtained through a public records request, two tones sent out for an activated carbon monoxide detector went unanswered by the Fire Department. Eventually, an engine on the way to the scene requested mutual aid from Strathmere because there were only two firefighters available.
Several incidents last year exposed dispatching issues. Over Memorial Day weekend, a fire that started in Janice Pantano’s car engine spread to her summer home in the 19 minutes it took for the Fire Department to start spraying water. A Press review of fire reports and dispatch records found that, though police were on the scene in moments, it took six minutes before a dispatch signal was sent to fire crews. A review of dispatch records between January 2018 and July 2019 showed firefighters were not called out to fire scenes, on average, until 4 minutes and 24 seconds after the initial 911 call.
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A tort claim, or notice of intent to sue, was filed on behalf of Pantano in September with Qual-Lynx, the third party claims administrator for the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, of which Sea Isle is a member. In a questionnaire for the notice, Pantano said the damage to her home and car was caused by “the fire department’s very slow response which was below the standard of care.”
Former fire chief Frank Edwardi Sr. — who spent 46 years as a firefighter in Sea Isle and was forced to resign last June after a state inquiry found he and his two assistants did not have proper “incident command” training — said the practice of sending police first to visually confirm the presence of flames goes way back on the island. Former Assistant Chief Keith Larsen confirmed Edwardi’s assessment in a recent interview.
Edwardi, whose son is a city councilman, said he had long lobbied for a change in dispatch practices.
“People criticize the fire company for being late. Well, this is what we’re up against,” said Edwardi, 75, last year. “I said this a hundred times: Call us out. Who cares? You know, call us. ... you can always turn (the truck) around.”
Inconsistent dispatching is just one of a number of problems some firefighters in Sea Isle see as a drag on the quality of their service. The city, which has had a volunteer department since 1896, has seen a steady decline in volunteers, Edwardi said. The costliness of living on the island contributes to that, he said.
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Pantano’s neighbor, Kevin Brennan, an accountant, said he did his own calculations and presented them to officials. He concluded Sea Isle could hire 21 firefighters to staff the firehouse in shifts around the clock for less than $2 million to support the existing Fire Department. In 2019, the city earmarked $114,900 for the Fire Department in 2019 and $3,649,450 for police.
The city is considering other changes to the department beyond dispatching practices, but McQuillen declined to go into detail.
“We’re looking at a couple different things ... but nothing that we’re prepared to publicly talk about,” he said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, I guess.”