Change in Building Landscape Challenging for LBI Firefighters

Nov 08, 2017
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Five years after Superstorm Sandy decimated much of the Jersey Shore, prompting a state mandate for higher dunes in some areas, the aesthetics have changed. Gone are traditional Cape Cod homes that dotted the landscape. In their place, homes the size of small apartment buildings in midsize cities are being built. They come with beautiful, even masterful landscaping.

These post-Sandy changes present challenges not fully seen before on Long Beach Island, and no one knows this more than the volunteer firefighters charged with protecting life and property 6 miles at sea. The homes are scattered across the 18-mile barrier island, but some of the largest new construction hasn’t even started yet, and those buildings are coming to Ship Bottom, the gateway community to living on a sandbar.

“After Sandy, new construction maxes out lot coverage,” said Rick McDonough, Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. president. “They’re not just bigger, but taller and wider. Go big or go home, and that’s just residential.”

Two decades ago, the largest buildings on the Island were Morrison’s Seafood Restaurant in Beach Haven, Wida’s Brant Beach Hotel and Restaurant, now daddyO Hotel and Restaurant, in Long Beach Township, and the Quarter Deck, which is slated to become the largest commercial building on LBI. The site of The Stateroom since 2007, the building, located between Eight hand Ninth streets at the entrance to the Island, is expected to come down in the near future to make room for the 105-room Hotel LBI. At 45 feet in the air, the building will be 5 feet higher than the current structure.

Hotel LBI is one of several significant changes to the landscape of the Route 72 corridor coming onto the Island. Another is the proposed 24-unit condominium complex set to begin construction this fall at the site of the vacated Exxon gas station at the Causeway Circle.

Like Hotel LBI, The Arlington Beach Club will be located between Eighth and Ninth streets in Ship Bottom. It will be bordered by Long Beach Boulevard to the east and Central Avenue to the west. The Causeway Circle will be reconfigured as a square once the state Department of Transportation completes its $350 million bridge project, slated tentatively for the summer of 2020, though the end date is predicated on weather and other outside factors.

The DOT’s proposed improvements in Ship Bottom include converting a section of Long Beach Boulevard, the main thoroughfare on the 18-mile Island, into a two-way road at the site of The Arlington Beach Club, according to state officials.

Changes in Ship Bottom’s skyline extend all the way to the oceanfront area around Ninth Street at the Drifting Sands Motel. The full scope of the plans for the 100-room hotel aren’t known at this time, but representatives for the new owners, Blue Water Development, including local architect Jeffrey Wells, went before the Ship Bottom Land Use Board for an informal review of the company’s conceptual plans for the oceanfront property last month. The Ocean City, Md.-based real estate development company specializing in commercial and hospitality properties purchased the oceanfront facility for $12.5 million.

These are just some of the challenges facing volunteer firefighters, not just in Ship Bottom, but across the Island. Fighting fires the traditional way is “obsolete because of the way the community has evolved,” said Douglas White, Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. chief.

“And we need to evolve with it,” McDonough said.

The Future
Of Firefighting

Before Sandy struck, the Ship Bottom Fire Co. was ahead of the community’s needs, McDonough said. Its trucks were sufficient to fight most fires the company would encounter in the borough,and in neighboring communities, he said.

“After Sandy,” McDonough acknowledged, “the community is ahead of us. Keeping up benefits all of us.”

The fire company has been looking at a new truck, one with a platform that would help firefighters rescue individuals in homes, and off decks that seem to stretch to the sky. The new truck would also extend the company’s firefighting abilities from 61 feet to 100 feet, McDonough said.

“We need the reach to accomplish what we need,” White added.

Drawing a diagram, McDonough pointed out how new construction and landscaping make it more difficult for fighters to do their jobs. What the average person sees as aesthetically pleasing, firefighters see as hazards to their number one mission of saving life and property. That’s punctuated by their understanding a truck with a 61-foot reach falls short when landscaping plus confined spaces between homes make it difficult for a fire truck to get close enough for firefighters to successfully battle a blaze.

“Our first concern,” McDonough said, “is fire spread. The materials being used are faster, cheaper and made up almost solely of petroleum products. Do you know what happens to petroleum once it’s heated?”

Throw in the additional bathrooms, and outside showers most new construction has, and firefighting on the Island in the middle of the summer is challenging at best, Roger Budd, former Ship Bottom fire chief, said.

“Have you ever tried to take a shower between 4 and 5 p.m. in the summer?” he asked. “What’s your water pressure like? Most people don’t realize we can suck their toilets dry if we have to.”

But the high-rise buildings and the additional amenities in many new homes will challenge the water issue further, Budd said.

“We have limitations to the water system,” McDonough acknowledged, “but we also have a plan to pull from the nearest, fastest hydrants, and when they run dry, we will pull from the bay.”

Imagine this: a Saturday in the summer, July or August, take your pick. A fire at the circle in Ship Bottom. The closest place to get enough water to fight the blaze is the bay. Here’s what needs to occur: The fire company would throw down a large-diameter hose across the first Causeway bridge, right down the center of it, halting traffic in every direction, in order to take water from the bay.

The hose is equivalent to a water pipe. It would be in place for several hours. No one is going anywhere, White said.

“Adapting to challenges is a big part of what we do,” he said.

Even with 25 active members, adapting is something the fire company is good at since most volunteer firefighters can’t afford to live on the Island. Often Ship Bottom fire responses are manned by three firefighters, who live on the Island, and three from the Surf City Volunteer Fire Co. and EMS. The two companies are always dispatched together. They are all volunteers, trained to fight a fire the same way paid firefighters in New York City, Baltimore and other large cities are trained.

“We can get a lot done,” McDonough said. “We might be totally exhausted when the rest of the team arrives, but we can do some damage to the fire.”

Keeping Up
Takes Money

The Ship Bottom company operates on an annual budget of $260,000, McDonough said. It raises about 68 percent of the money through a variety of events each year, including its Summer Block Party, the Christmas Tree Sale, and this year it’s introducing a New Year’s Eve Party. The remaining 32 percent is paid through stipends from Long Beach Township and Ship Bottom.

One of the reasons the lion’s share of money comes from fundraising is because the department doesn’t want to burden taxpayers, McDonough said.

“It’s a pride thing,” Budd said of the department remaining independent, though the firefighters are considered non-paid borough employees because Ship Bottom does cover workman’s compensation for the department.

But the cost of a new, aerial truck – the basic model with no fancy bells or whistles – with a platform that would meet the community’s needs would fall on the shoulder of the fire company, through cash and a bank note. That truck runs roughly $900,000. In order to obtain price protection, the fire company needs to act sooner rather than later since it takes about 2 years for a fire truck to be tailor made. Once a fire company determines its needs, an engineer from one of several national fire truck building companies designs a truck. From there, tweaks can be made.

“We needed the new truck yesterday,” White said as McDonough noted the engine truck the company does have moves 2,000 gallons of water a minute, and cost $450,000 three years ago. They’re still paying the truck off.

The prices are only going to continue to go up because the technology is going to continue to evolve.

“We need a truck for all the new building,” McDonough said, “but we also need one to fit in our (firehouse). We can’t change our footprint.”

The way local communities are evolving is beyond the firefighters’ ability to save and protect. That’s why the company is beginning to forge relationships with developers, basically to let them know “this is where we’re at, and this is where we need to be so we can save life and property,” White said.

“We’re not looking to take,” McDonough added. “Sandy taught us a lot.”

Gina G. Scala

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