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