By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
For firefighters, a precious few minutes can make the difference between saving a home or possibly seeing it burn to the ground.
Looking to respond to fires even faster, Sea Isle City has found a way for the volunteer fire department to rush to fires within minutes of receiving emergency calls.
This summer, the city has begun stationing firefighters overnight at the fire station, a move that bolsters fire safety at a time when the town is crowded with tens of thousands of vacationers.
“It’s a comforting feeling knowing that they’re there to respond,” said Police Chief Tom McQuillen, who oversees Sea Isle’s public safety.
Three or four firefighters are stationed at the fire house next to City Hall seven days a week between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
McQuillen said the overnight crews are ready to arrive at fires “in minutes.”
Normally, Sea Isle’s volunteer firefighters must drive to the fire station from their homes or jobs after the alarm goes off, a process that adds time for responding to emergencies.
The overnight crews were part of the fire department’s restructuring following four separate fires in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that destroyed a total of nine single-family homes or duplexes. One of the fires killed an elderly woman on 54th Street in November 2018.
Some residents have called for Sea Isle to consider switching to a paid fire department instead of relying on volunteers or to improve fire protection and response times in other ways. City officials have repeatedly praised the volunteer firefighters for their service and response times amid recent changes in the department.
“The city appreciates the job that the volunteer firefighters do,” McQuillen said.
The night crews create a hybrid model consisting of volunteers in the day and paid firefighters for the overnight shift. Firefighters are each paid $160 for each night they work, McQuillen said.
City Council approved an ordinance this year creating a payment program for volunteer firefighters who are part of the overnight shift. Overall, the cost of the program will be capped at $30,000 per month, according to the ordinance.
“The demands of our city are also significant, and while we are confident that Sea Isle can continue to be properly served by the volunteer department, establishment of the (overnight) duty crew will provide for optimal protection during our most vulnerable times,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said in a statement in January.
Under a restructuring plan announced in February 2020, the city also included improvements for emergency dispatching, response protocols and staffing.
For now, the overnight crews will be used primarily during the summer. McQuillen said there are also plans to have them on duty during special events in town that traditionally draw big crowds, such as the Fall Family Festival in September and Polar Bear Plunge Weekend in February.
The overnight crews have not yet responded to actual fires, McQuillen said. However, they have responded to other incidents, such as smoke alarms going off or people stuck in elevators, he noted.
“So far, it’s been about as good as it was expected to be,” McQuillen said of the overnight fire protection.