Seaside Park: Who Saved the Boardwalk?


Answer:  Nobody

The week of September 11th, blessedly calm in most respects, was rudely enlivened on the Jersey Shore by a massive fire in Seaside Park which destroyed the recently reconstructed boardwalk area.

Seaside Park and its environs was devastated by hurricane Sandy.  Reconstructing the boardwalk was about much more than mere lumber and nails, it reestablished the economic well being and the social center of the community. Now, it’s gone, again.

Hurricane Sandy was an Atlantic spawned natural disaster of epic proportions where the sea and the wind had their way.  The storm aftermath evoked responses of the “we will rebuild” type where residents proclaimed their intention to defy almighty nature, at least till the next time.

Seaside Boardwalk

The fire elicited similar language as if it too was born of the elements.

Alas, not.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quick on the scene to offer support and financial aid to once again rebuild.  The “we shall overcome” expressions, so close on Sandy, had the effect of  conflating the fire and the hurricane into like occurrences, natural and uncontrollable.

Last Thursday’s fire and the destruction it wrought, rebuilding aside, should  raise a few questions about the delivery of fire protection in the same way we would if the event had been a large scale law enforcement operation.  Had it been so, reporters and others would be asking obvious questions about the number of officers available and the time required for their response to the scene. (How long did it take for the first officers to arrive?  What did they do?)

Similarly, if the event had resulted in a large number of casualties who were then transported to a local hospital where emergency care was judged to be absent or sorely lacking, questions would be asked regarding levels of care and staffing requirements.

No such questions have or will be asked here because the fire departments in the area are volunteer, which is to say they are not staffed until such time as members arrive at the fire house and then proceed to the fire.  The symbols of firefighting eventually show up and spray water, but to what effect?

Lest we forget the obvious, all fires go out eventually.  The idea is to stop them in their tracks early and a primary way to do that is to have a firefighting team on the scene and at work in around 8-10 minutes, maximum.  Or, so says science.  Each second beyond that means less of a chance of stopping the rapidly growing fire.

It is a perplexing oddity that so many communities with so much at stake refuse to provide effective resources for firefighting.  Imagine, as mentioned above, that both the police department and the hospital were all volunteer.  If a crime or a medical emergency occurred, a police officer or physician would eventually arrive to render aid, of a sort.  Would that really be deemed acceptable or appropriate?

Volunteer firefighters play an essential and crucial role in the delivery of fire protection but Seaside Park and ten thousand other fires continuously raise the issue of our desultory approach to fire protection where something is allowed to masquerade as better than nothing.

The Seaside Park fire and the aftermath was neither an act of nature nor a foregone conclusion.  It was, at least in part, a direct result of our perennial love affair with a revered community social institution which blinds us to the real cost of fire protection on-the-cheap.

Where firefighting is concerned, sometimes you don’t get what you pay for but you rarely get what you don’t pay for.


  • Bill Hand says:

    Eric, you know enough about history to understand why cops are always paid and firefighters are mostly volunteer.
    My question is what are the fire codes and was this complex fully sprinklered? That goes a long way independent of staffing in controlling this type of fire. Another reason for the lack of adequate fire protection is insurance. If you could not buy insurance and had to manage the risk of not having it, people would be a lot more careful with construction and fire prevention. They would also probably consider twice before building something like this on the beach where Mother Nature could wipe it out.

  • Matt Genovese says:

    Eric, before you go off half-cocked starting yet another career vs. volunteer intramural battle, please do more research. You’re off base. A) the volunteer department responded and was on-scene with their first due engine in 6 minutes (less than the 8-10 minute timeframe you cited as vital). The radio transmissions are posted all over the Internet…use them to check your facts. B) there were a number of career firefighters working side by side with volunteers. This wasn’t a fire fought only by volunteers.

    • Eric Lamar says:

      Either a neophyte or a very clever person would suggest that one engine arriving within 8 minutes doth an effective firefighting team make. How many Firefighters were on the first-in engine? When did the truck company arrive and how many members did they have? How long to get 4 and 2 on the fire ground and operating? How long to vent the fire building? Questions, questions…

  • Brian says:

    Interested comments. I can’t say if career responders would have had any better luck with this fire. 30 MPH Winds, old construction with buildings right on top of each other with no apparently sprinkler system is use. Thankfully injuries were low and minor.

  • Matt Genovese says:

    Eric, as I stated, you can go back and listen to the tapes. As Brian posits, it is doubtful that anyone was going to save those buildings. They were fighting a wind fueled fire. Could it have been handled better? Possibly. But the fact that there was a volunteer department was not a factor. Their response time was not the issue.

    But instead of doing any actual research or state any facts, you instead decide to use this disaster as a good place to weigh in on the age-old career vs volunteer muck racking. There is no place for that. Why not just learn to respect each other and learn to work with each other instead of finger pointing and playing petty games with loaded political agendas?

    Your whole post is demeaning to your “brothers” in the fire service who were trying to do their job to the best of their abilities with the resources that were available. How about instead of kicking them when they are down you offer some support…you know like a true brother would?

    No, it’s easier to point fingers and name call.

    To answer your question, I am not a neophyte. I was simply rebutting the false assertion that you made that response time was an issue. Surely it has been in other fires but in this one it was not.

  • ML Tracy says:

    The true culprits of this fire are driving a desk. To have had the opportunity to require install / retro fit sprinklers both interior and below decks during the hurricane rebuild and not doing it should be criminal. The real losers here are not the shop keepers but the taxpayers and the other insurance premium payers whom will pick up the tab…Again! The laundry list of code problems on the “new” build was obvious from the photo’s. As far as your self created battle of Vol.-vs- Paid, it really wouldn’t matter who was holding the nozzle, because it would have been a Mop-up & Overhaul job if sprinklers would have been in place.

  • chris says:

    I read the above article and nowhere did I see any career vs volunteer bashing. Questioning the response time and staffing in no way equals volunteer mug racking. These are questions that should be answered. After reading your comment I went and listened to the audio and couldn’t believe what I heard. I’m not Monday morning quarterbacking but come on man! I turned it off after the first couple of minutes. A chief was on scene within minutes and requested a re-dispatch of his company for a working fire. After the first engine signed on I believe the 2nd due was a brush truck with fire police officer on board!!!!give me a break. I’m sure it was no secret that there was 30 mph winds, numerous exposures at risk and a gigantic fire load and even after dispatch prodded him about a full alarm assignment his response was “negative, just my company at this time” For real???????? Is this the normal response for a confirmed fire? Does seaside park have staffing of 100 firefighters that I don’t know of? Mistakes happen on both the career and volunteer side but I really hope that people learn from this one. I understand that this could have been the final result no matter what the staffing was or what the response time was but fire departments and municipalities need to be responsible and held accountable for their staffing or lack thereof whether career or volunteer. I did hear the first engine sign on within a couple minutes but am also curious of how many trained firefighters were on scene within the first 15 minutes. Apparatus and equipment do not put out fires, firefighters do. Lets not turn this into a Career/Volunteer fight.

    • Fire Marshall Bill says:

      The problem is when it deals with questioning a volunteer department of heroes then it immediately means you are bashing them and starting the career versus volunteer battle. Its a tactic that has been employed for years to deflect from the real issues of lack of manpower, training or poor tactics.

      They will not learn from this. The only reason it won’t happen again is that the updated new building and fire code will take effect and buildings will probably be sprinklered and have fire breaks and at least fire rated partitions.
      Mistakes were made but since the responders were volunteer we are never allowed to question them. If you want equal footing in the fire service you have to take your lumps and man up when hard questions are asked.

  • Jim Zeigler says:

    I agree. Given the amount of fire, and the spread of the fire, wind-driven or not, I think the local fire codes and the enforcement of this fire codes need to be examined. Lucky the fireman were not killed trying to extinguish this blaze.

  • Sam says:

    So what’s with this attitude that paid firefighters can do no wrong and vollies suck? Pardon the expression, but I keep running into it. Eric, would you prefer all of us that volunteer to just hang up our bunker gear and quit? After all, then the towns would be adequately served by a real professional crew regardless of the financial costs to the community. Our department is mostly volunteer. We drill hard. We study hard. We do a damn good job of fighting the few fires our community has per year. Providing a fully staffed full time department guaranteed to respond to any location in our district in under 10 minutes would cost untold millions per year (probably $15M minimum), for a population of 5,000. We would have to triple our taxes, at a minimum. People wouldn’t be able to eat, but hey, they’d be protected by “real” firefighters so that’s ok. I’ll let you explain to the community how they would be so much better off.

  • Fire MarshalL Bill says:

    Sure the first engine arrived within six minutes with three people on it. So that’s four guys total on the scene. I listened to nearly all of the radio transmissions. The commander refused mutual aid help initially. He asked for an 1 3/4 as his first line. Someone states they have to get under the boardwalk. Sure there was a wind whipped fire. But photos will show elevated master streams were pushing the fire at some points. It seemed based on radio transmissions that cutting a fire break was done or devised late in the game. Big fire =Big water. Manpower was the man issue and was not helped by the fact the NJ firemen’s Relief Association Convention was that weekend. That boardwalk should have been trench cut in an unburned section as well as the flat roof. Such an undertaking needs experienced, planned coordination with ALOT of people. I know they did not have enough people because during the first 45 minutes multiple times tasks were assigned and were not able to be carried out due to not having ANYBODY to do them.

    On the fire code side, Im not sure which code was applied to the rebuilding of the boardwalk and or the businesses. In NJ a fire official has limited authority in compelling a business to retrofit a building with sprinklers. If the building was built before 1977 it could be required to have sprinklers in the basement (which I doubt they have) or a monitored alarm system. Can’t make them sprinkler the buildings which by the way only two had partial domestic systems. Both businesses while damaged are still standing. They are I believe also on the very northern edge of the fire progression though as well. Much has been made about water issues weakened by Sandy. My question is why then were they allowed to rebuild things without adequate water supply? If the water system was in such disrepair and long distance pumping and drafting was needed why did they not ask for the Neptune pump system earlier. Pride? Machismo?

    Good incident management starts with preplanning which does not sound like there was much of there. Having to special call every unit to the season is silly. Box alarm response matrix should have been set well before the fire. Being an IC you need to make a good thorough initial size up. If defenders want to say it looked doubtful from the onset for whatever reason then more and appropriate resources should have been requested sooner. We can never know what effective they would have had on lessen damage because it did not happen. Im glad someone is asking the tough questions here because Im tired of listening to what heroes these guys were for fighting (and losing about five blocks of prime beachfront)

  • AJ Zuccarelli says:

    Fire Marshal Bill hit the nail on the head. I was on a combo dept at the southern Jersey Shore. Box alarms were struck for commercial and high rise fire alarms, and reported structural fires, bringing career, paid, and volunteers together. Combine that with preplanning, chalk talks, and boardwalk apparatus, and we were prepared. This was sad, disgraceful, and pathetic. If these guys were paid, you can bet there would be charges, and calls for their job.
    We can not excuse piss poor tactics and being unprepared “because they are volunteers”. I don’t give a damn if you collect a check or not. Be prepared, be Combat Ready.


  • Asst. Chief Tony says:

    FM Bill, I was wondering myself while listening, what in the heck is 4510 waiting for to call for help???? ESPECIALLY with the Fireman’s convention going on that week and many FF’s in the area probably out of town. And then to have mutual aid stand by initially?? Call for help early!!! Time of day, weather conditions, time of year even (Convention), staffing and so on all add up to needing help early here. It might not made a difference in the end but it CERTAINLY couldn’t have hurt.

  • Fire Marshall Bill says:

    I firmly believe that the damage would have been less if there was a full response initially and the fire was blitzed with big water.

  • Eric Rowlands says:

    Was a cause determined in this fire? Please don’t tell me it was careless smoking. Should they ban smoking on the boards it would cover health&safety that’s a win in my book. regardless the cause a no doubt in my mind whether wet or dry a sprinkler system in place would of prevented such a huge loss. It’s a major advantage to any department career or volunteer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *