By MADDY VITALE
After a series of major fires over two years, Sea Isle City is making changes to its volunteer fire department to include an overnight crew for faster response times.
The city is offering more money for volunteers to be there on a “duty crew,” effectively giving the fire department a round-the-clock presence.
“Over the past six months we’ve made a number of changes in the fire department,” explained Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano during a City Council meeting Thursday.
Some of those changes include incentivizing the volunteer firefighter positions with a stipend program that provides for a duty crew of about four firefighters to stay overnight at the fire station, Savastano said.
Times for the crew and pay would still need to be finalized, officials said.
“We are working with the fire department,” Savastano said.
He noted that the anticipated date when the restructuring will take place will be sometime before to the summer. Prior to that time, city officials will be able to incorporate additional funds into the fire department portion of the budget.
“Sea Isle has no problem being cutting edge,” Savastano said of the restructuring plan. “But we are not the only community struggling with volunteers.”
With changes to the fire department, including new firefighters over the last year, things are improving even before a night crew comes on board, according to Savastano.
“We have new fire department members and good response times,” he added.
Among the recent changes, John Mazurie Jr., a volunteer for 30 years, became the new fire chief, taking over for Frank Edwardi Sr., who left last year amid controversary over his qualifications to lead the department.
State officials alleged that Edwardi Sr. lacked proper certification to hold his leadership post. The city later refuted that after conducting an internal review and “exonerated” him.
Police Chief Tom McQuillen, who directs public safety for Sea Isle, oversees the fire department and has been in communication with the members about the planned and current changes.
McQuillen said in an interview with SeaIsleNews.com after the Council meeting Thursday that the volunteer firefighters give “150 percent and we have all the confidence in the world in them.”
He also said the city is working toward improvements to all areas of emergency operations to include dispatch, response protocols and staffing.
“We are continuing to look at ways to improve all emergency services — police, fire and EMS,” he said. “We are doing everything we can every day to figure out the best way to provide police, fire and emergency medical services, but we are still finalizing the plan and it will be reviewed.”
He explained that since November 2019, the city has made changes to the dispatch protocols to do simulcast dispatching, in which police, fire and EMS are all alerted for response to an emergency scene. The former protocol had police going to survey the situation prior to other personnel responding.
Concerns arose about Sea Isle’s fire department after four separate blazes destroyed a total of nine single-family homes or duplexes dating back to late 2017.
A beachfront single-family home and two duplexes next door were destroyed in November 2017 on Pleasure Avenue between 91st and 92nd streets in the city’s Townsends Inlet section.
On Nov. 29, 2018, a fire destroyed three adjacent duplexes on 54th Street and killed an 89-year-old woman who lived in one of the homes.
Then on Easter morning of 2019 two adjacent duplexes went up in flames on 75th Street overlooking the bay.
The following month, a house at 5605 Central Avenue was destroyed when an SUV parked in the driveway caught fire and the flames spread to the home.
During the public portion of the Council meeting Thursday, former Councilman John Divney said he believes the majority of the residents of Sea Isle would support changes in the fire department, even if it included an increase in city funding.
“I think 98 percent of the citizens would applaud what you are doing,” Divney said.
The proposed 2020 municipal budget, given first review by Council on Thursday, sets aside $133,250 for the fire company, up from $96,550 in 2019.
Councilwoman Mary Tighe said she thought that was a good start, but she believes even more funding should be given to the fire department.
Tighe said she would have liked to have seen “a bigger jump” in the fire department budget.
“Did we increase it enough?” she asked. “I know what we have been talking about. I don’t think we are being realistic with what it is going to cost us.”
Councilman Jack Gibson, who echoed Tighe’s sentiments, said, “It seems we’re being extremely conservative.”
Chief Financial Officer Paula Doll, who gave the budget presentation, explained that more funding could be shifted to the fire department if needed.