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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.