By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City’s police officers and firefighters showed Tuesday evening that they can still do their jobs without having to rush out to a crime scene, a burning house, a traffic accident or a medical emergency.
What did they do instead? They tossed around footballs, watched children jump around in a bounce house and handed out miniature red fire helmets.
While this may have seemed like all fun and games, the officers and firefighters actually were building a friendship with youngsters as part of the police and fire departments’ efforts to strengthen their ties with the community during Sea Isle’s annual National Night Out celebration.
“I think it speaks very well about our relationship with the community and the gains we have made with the community,” Police Chief Tom McQuillen said of the big turnout for the event at Excursion Park.
Since taking over as police chief in 2018, McQuillen has touted the importance of public outreach with the community. He noted that relations between the police department and the local community remain particularly strong.
“That’s paramount in what we do today,” McQuillen said.
Nationwide, relations between law enforcement and the public have been strained by a series of police shootings of African-Americans and anti-police protests.
Lt. Steven Conte said Sea Isle’s police department has been able to establish special bonds with the community through the public outreach programs emphasized by McQuillen.
“The police have always, always tried to work with the community and build strong relationships,” Conte said. “We always have nice community outreach. The chief has put community service first.”
Reflecting the family-friendly atmosphere of Sea Isle’s National Night Out, Conte brought his wife, Maureen, and their 6-year-old daughter, Genevieve, to the event. They were also joined by a family friend, Kelli Young, and her 2-year-old son, Patrick.
Hundreds of children, parents and grandparents filled Excursion Park from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. during a mild August evening that included temperatures in the 70s and cool ocean breezes.
There were amusement rides, games, face-painting, free food and other attractions for families. McQuillen pointed out that the local business community gets heavily involved in the event by donating everything. There is no cost to taxpayers, he said.
Police officers, firefighters, emergency management technicians and members of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol mingled with families, posed for pictures and showed off their emergency equipment. Children were able to get a peek inside a fire engine and other emergency vehicles.
Maureen Schuck, a Garnet Valley, Pa., resident who has a summer vacation home in Sea Isle, said National Night Out represents an opportunity to teach her four children about the critical role that first responders play in the community.
“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be safe. They’re the ones who protect us,” Schuck said.
Schuck reminded her children to thank the police officers and other first responders for their service. She also stressed that she has told her children that if they somehow get lost on the beach or elsewhere, they should immediately look for a police officer.
Her children include sons James, 9, Gabe, 8, and Ben, 5 and her daughter, Avalon, 6. The Schuck family was also joined by a friend, 9-year-old Joe Ryan.
The boys had their faces painted like skeletons. They also looked forward to spending time playing in a bounce house.
Autumn Billick, 12, and her 9-year-old sister, Kelsey, showed off their athletic ability by throwing around a miniature football in a game called “Quarterback Toss.” Police officers Matt Charlton and Owen Cutaneo served as coaches while encouraging the girls to hit the target with the football.
“You’re getting close. This one’s going in,” Charlton said as Autumn prepared to throw.
“It was fun,” Autumn said afterward.
Autumn and Kelsey’s father, Tim Billick, of Brookhaven, Pa., smiled when he heard that his daughters were having a good time.
Kelsey had her face painted like a butterfly. But there was something else that proved to be her favorite thing at National Night Out.
“Water ice!” Kelsey exclaimed.
Many of the children at Excursion Park were wearing toy fire helmets handed out by members of Sea Isle’s Volunteer Fire Department. The kids were able to climb aboard a fire truck, marveling over the elaborate controls.
Firefighter Harry Preston helped 7-year-old Jimmy Johnson and other children hold a fire hose while spraying water on a miniature house that had fake flames coming out of the windows.
“It was fun. I felt like I was squirting out a fire,” Jimmy said, proudly.
This wasn’t the first time he had handled a fire hose. He also did the same thing two years ago at Sea Isle’s National Night Out. The 2020 National Night Out was canceled due to the pandemic.
Jimmy’s grandmother, Denise Johnson, a Sea Isle resident, said it is important to attend National Night Out to give children a chance to meet local police officers, firefighters and other first responders.
Johnson said children will begin to build a friendly relationship with the first responders once they get to know them and may be inspired by their community service.
“It’s good for them to see our everyday heroes,” she said.