smoke alarm

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.

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.”

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