By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City residents are demanding to know more information about a series of major house fires in the past 18 months, including one that killed an elderly woman.
Appearing before City Council on Saturday, some of them questioned whether Sea Isle should hire professional firefighters to provide 24-hour protection instead of continuing to rely on a volunteer fire department.
“It’s kind of scary when you wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and there’s fire engines,” said Anne Organ, who lives on 39th Street.
Organ suggested that the city should consider hiring at least two or three professional firefighters to supplement the volunteers.
Another resident, Andrea Ritter, wondered whether the volunteers are responding fast enough to fires, particularly if some of them have to drive to Sea Isle from their homes in surrounding communities.
“I’m really concerned, too. It seems like a lot of fires,” Ritter told the Council members during a special Saturday meeting that was part of the city’s annual Community Day celebration.
In response, Council President Jack Gibson and City Business Administrator George Savastano praised Sea Isle’s volunteer fire department for the protection it gives the city. Savastano pointed out that it is common for municipalities to have volunteer fire departments.
During the most recent blaze, which destroyed two adjacent duplexes on 75th Street on Easter morning, the fire department arrived within 11 minutes, which Savastano said was “not too bad.”
Sea Isle often receives help from fire departments in neighboring communities, including Avalon, during fires. It is customary for local fire departments to battle blazes in each other’s towns. However, the ongoing closure of the Townsends Inlet Bridge for structural repairs has dramatically hindered the Avalon fire department from rushing to Sea Isle’s aid.
Instead of a quick hop over the bridge into Sea Isle, Avalon’s firefighters must now follow a lengthy detour on Route 9 or the Garden State Parkway, greatly adding to the response time.
With Avalon cut off from Sea Isle because of the bridge closure, the Ocean View fire department has offered to help Sea Isle with a “greater level of participation” for fire protection, Gibson said.
In the meantime, Gibson wants Sea Isle to work with local residents on ways to increase fire awareness and safety. He is suggesting that the city should use its website to educate the public with fire safety tips.
Gibson also wants the city to gain access to Sea Isle fire investigations conducted by the Cape May County Fire Marshal’s Office. He believes the findings of those fire reports would be a valuable tool to help prevent more fires.
“Council would like to see the results of those investigations as well,” Gibson said.
Savastano told Gibson and the other Council members that Sea Isle Police Chief Tom McQuillen has been working with the county Fire Marshal’s Office on the results of the fire investigations.
“When we have that information, we’ll put it out,” Savastano said.
There have been no public announcements about the causes of the April 21 fire on 75th Street or another blaze on Nov. 29, 2018, that destroyed three adjacent duplexes on 54th Street and killed an 89-year-old woman who lived in one of the homes.
Prior to those fires, a wind-whipped inferno on Nov. 24, 2017, destroyed three adjacent beachfront homes on Pleasure Avenue. The cause of that blaze could not be determined by investigators.
John Divney, a Sea Isle resident and former councilman, said city officials should study the county fire reports to see if there is any “common denominator” between the most recent fires.
Tom Mcguire, another resident, believes the city should invite the county Fire Marshal’s Office to Sea Isle to discuss fire safety with the public and Council.
“It will make a lot of people feel more safe and know what’s happening,” Mcguire said.
Saturday’s meeting represented the second time in two months that residents urged Council to take more action to improve fire protection.
At the April 23 Council meeting, several residents called on the governing body to tighten the local building codes. They suggested that the city should require fire-retardant construction materials as well as stronger fire walls.
Some residents said homes are too densely packed together in Sea Isle, allowing fires to easily spread from one house to another. They wondered whether the city’s zoning laws should be changed to require more space between homes.
At Saturday’s Council meeting, Savastano said Sea Isle takes fire safety as seriously as any other municipality and has “great construction codes.”
He added, though, that some fire protection measures, including any requirement for sprinkler systems in home construction, fall within the jurisdiction of state government.