By Neil Schulman
Oceanport — While members of the fire department have been complaining for years that the siren system doesn’t work, is that the real problem, or is it the fact that the radio system is so unreliable?
The long-standing issue that the emergency siren system doesn’t work came up again at the Dec. 1 Borough Council meeting. Proponents say that it’s needed to alert firefighters and other first responders to important situations, but others feel it’s an outdated technology, especially when each member is outfitted with high tech radios.
Firefighter Clarence Brocklebank said that there had recently been a school evacuation — a situation where the siren is supposed to sound — but the alert never came. He wanted to know why.
Councilman Stuart Briskey, a firefighter here himself, said this was a longstanding issue. “I’ve been asking the same thing for five years,” he said. “The volunteers want it and it’s being stifled.”
There’s a grant to fix the siren system in place. Currently, the borough is waiting to hear back from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection on if there’s a limit to the decibel level of the one in Blackberry Bay Park, which needs repairs. Endangered ospreys make their nests nearby, and there could be limits.
Councilwoman Ellynn Kahle said this wasn’t only an issue for the birds when they were operational. “Some of the residents were complaining the decibel level was too high,” she said.
It’s not just that the sirens don’t work, though. Currently, the fire department, police department and first aid squad can’t access them. Under the current system, they’re solely under the discretion of Director of the Office of Emergency Management, and only he has the equipment to sound the sirens.
Last year, council passed a policy that the sirens would be sounded in three circumstances: fires at the schools, when two calls have been put out over the radio and there still aren’t enough responders, and structure fires.
Briskey said he’d like to give fire chiefs and the officer in charge of a shift authority to blow the sirens.
But some feel that might give too many people access to the system. When Oceanport still had its own dispatch, the sirens were sounded through there.
As an all volunteer department, there often aren’t enough responders on call to go out to a situation, or people fail to respond to the radio system, he said. Briskey said he’s violated protocol, which says four firefighters must be in an engine, and taken only two to respond to a reported fire at the school, due to concern for the students.
A siren would let people know there’s a situation to react to.
But when asked why they don’t respond, firefighters said that it’s because their radios to the county dispatch don’t work.
Half of the calls don’t come out,” Brocklebank said.
Some officials feel that the reliance on sirens to get responders to calls is too outdated for an age where everyone has a radio and pager.
“The sirens are archaic,” said Councilman Joe Irace. “We might as well ring the bell in Old Wharf, which is what they did in the 1950s.”
The sirens are supposed to be a third level of notification. The radio is primary, and any firefighters with a smart phone can receive text alerts (though because texts are not always sent to phones promptly, this is unreliable).
But since the radios were quite expensive – and it seems that the firefighters can’t communicate with the police department on them even though both operate through the county dispatch, Oceanport officials want to know what’s going on — and why this wasn’t addressed years ago.
“Does anyone ever call the county and say we’re batting only .500?” asked Mayor Jay Coffey. “I can’t believe if there’s a systemic problem like this where 50 percent of the time (it fails but…) nobody goes to the county.”
Officials from the fire companies, first aid squad, police, and OEM will meet with the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the dispatch system. Coffey said he wanted the meeting to take place before the next council meeting on Dec. 15 so that a policy could be put in place.