Four major fires in Sea Isle City over the last year have damaged millions of dollars in property and killed an elderly woman.
The fires also led to a state Department of Community Affairs investigation of the department. And that led to the removal of the department’s fire chief and his two assistants.
The turmoil surrounding the city’s volunteer fire service, created in 1896, has led to calls to shift to a paid department.
“The town is not a one-horse town anymore,” said former Fire Chief Frank Edwardi.
Edwardi believes the city has outgrown its all-volunteer department. New homes are bigger and closer to each other, he said. Meanwhile the fire company is getting smaller as fewer volunteer. Those who do, often live on the mainland and must dash onto the island when responding to fires.
No one in authority seems to be listening to these concerns.
In fact, city officials continue to stick to their guns — and tradition — when criticized.
“Our fire department has had a long successful history of serving this community, said Police Chief Thomas McQuillen, the city’s director of public safety. “They are comprised solely of dedicated volunteers who give hundreds of hours each year to protect citizens and residents of Sea Isle.”
McQuillen is right that volunteers work long and hard hours for no money. And he’s right; that model has worked.
But it doesn’t seem to be working now.
A recent report by Press of Atlantic City Staff Writer Colt Shaw found a pattern in the way the city handles fire calls. The city sends police officers to a fire first before responding with a fire truck.
That response, while legal, adds time — four minutes and 24 seconds on average. Edwardi says he’s long argued against it, to no avail.
It’s time for Sea Isle officials to take this issue head on. This includes the city’s mayor and City Council (McQuillen has responded to most of our questions to the city.)
There are plenty of options. In Princeton, borough officials have chosen to supplement its volunteer fire department with six paid firefighters. Those paid firefighters will ensure that there’s staffing to answer calls around the clock. The added cost: $800,000.
Princeton is also ramping up its advertising for volunteers, and reviving a junior firefighter program.
These solutions came after the city hired a consultant to help work through its issues.
Are these solutions the answer? It’s far too soon to tell. But by at least addressing the problem, officials there have sent a message that they’re focused on the issue.
That would be a good place for Sea Isle to start.