By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
For firefighters, every minute counts. For them, the faster they can rush to the scene, the better their chances of saving a home or business that is on fire.
As a way to improve response times and public safety, the Sea Isle City Volunteer Fire Department will have firefighters on duty overnight throughout the summer for the second year in a row.
The plan is to have a night shift stationed at the firehouse for as many days as possible. On Saturdays and Sundays, the department wants to expand its coverage even more by having fire crews on duty around the clock, said Capt. Anthony Garreffi.
“It will be better service, quicker service. It will offer peace of mind. They will have fire personnel there at night and ready to respond,” said Garreffi, who oversees Sea Isle’s public safety as officer in charge of the police department.
The overnight fire crews coincide with the start of the busy summer tourism season, when Sea Isle goes from having a year-round population of about 2,000 to crowds of between 50,000 and 70,000 on some weekends.
“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 last year about the need for expanded fire coverage during the summer.
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 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, city officials say.
City Council approved an ordinance last year creating a payment program for volunteer firefighters who are part of the overnight shift. Overall, the cost of the program is capped at $30,000 per month, according to the ordinance.
Sea Isle started the program for overnight fire crews last year and it was hailed as a success.
“It’s been working great,” Garreffi said.
The overnight fire crews began on Memorial Day weekend this year. Garreffi said he spoke with Fire Chief Bryan Moran and the plan is to expand the overnight coverage to as many days as possible after Father’s Day weekend and to add 24/7 coverage on Saturdays and Sundays, Garreffi said.
“It’s an immediate response time of our fire apparatus,” he said of the benefit of having crews stationed at the firehouse.
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.
To accommodate the overnight crews, Sea Isle is planning to build four new bedrooms inside the firehouse. The separate bedrooms will allow male and female firefighters to have their own sleeping quarters, Garreffi said.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the governing body is expected to authorize architectural work for the expansion project. The next step is to seek construction bids for the project in July, Garreffi said.
The timetable for completing the project is not yet clear. Garreffi indicated the city may wait until after the busy summer season to start construction.
In the meantime, the overnight crews will continue to use the beds in their meeting room at the fire station. Female firefighters are in a separate room.