Fire elections are taking place Saturday, and Fire Commissioner Mike D’Elia is the only one of the five commissioners on the board who is up for reelection this year. He is currently running unopposed, though last minute candidates have occasionally cropped up in the past.
Having completed his fifth term in that position – he thinks! – “time flies when you’re having fun!” he’s in it for the long haul, with the goal of keeping the fire service as fiscally responsible as possible, despite the many challenges inherent in such a task.
What a majority of Lakewooders don’t realize is that behind this unassuming man lies over half a century of dedicated service to the community, a fact that’s remained hidden for the most part because Mike D’Elia is not a man who likes to talk about himself nor toot his own horn. He does what he does because he loves it: because he loves this town and its citizens and because he loves to make a difference.
With classic humility, he attempts to shrug off any implication that he has done great things for this town, “I’ve just been happy doing it! Anyway, I think the community’s given back to me so much more than I’ve ever done for them!”
Five Decades of Loyalty
So what is it that he’s been doing all these years?
For the past approximately 15 years, he’s served on the Board of Fire Commissioners, essentially the executive branch of the fire department. They are responsible for the purchase of insurance, trucks and equipment and establishing a viable budget and involved in firefighter training. While the chief and his assistants are in charge of the actual fire, the commissioners ensure that they have the necessary resources to combat the flames.
But his relationship with the fire department goes back many more years. In 1960, as a young man of 21, Mike D’Elia joined the Lakewood First Aid Squad, and 2 years later became a volunteer firefighter. For thirty years he was an active first aid member, simultaneously serving in the fire department as well. In 1990 he became a life member of the First Aid Squad, still remaining on the fire department until today. Beside for serving as Commissioner, he still drives that truck to the calls, though he doesn’t actually battle the flames as much as he used to.
During his 50 years on the fire squad, he’s run the gamut of positions, from paid firefighter to volunteer, fire service instructor, President of Ocean County Fire Chiefs Associations, as well as serving as fire chief in 1986-87, after being both second assistant and assistant fire chief for two years each.
The end of December 2012 marked the completion of his half century as a firefighter, of a half a century worth of blazes battled and lives saved. He was present at some of the more memorable and tragic fires in Lakewood, including three fires in the Laurel in the Pines Hotel: one in the West Wing, one that burned the East Wing roof, and the final, fatal conflagration that decimated the hotel and killed two people in 1967. Mike also fought the flames at the deadly Hotel Allaben fire that claimed the lives of two Lakewood firemen from his company. Though that fire took place over 35 years ago, it is still difficult to discuss, and etched in his face is the trauma of that dark day, of fighting that merciless blaze alongside his two comrades who did not survive and of now, reliving that loss.
His resume of community service continues further than the fire department, boasting a stint on the township committee, on countless boards and on the Emergency Management Services and Emergency Planning Council, where he currently serves as well. He was the Emergency Management deputy coordinator for thirty years and then coordinator for a number of years, until Chief Rob Lawson assumed the title.
Somehow, he was able to accomplish all this while raising a family and running a business, Delia’s Funeral Home, which he co-owns with his brother.
Family: His First Love
When Mike speaks about his family, his face lights up. “My family is my life,” he repeats numerous times over the course of the interview. “They’re everything to me; they’re my reason for living and as long as I have them and my health, what more can I want? I’m content and happy.”
Married to a woman he’s known since school, they D’Elias’ have two children, a son and a daughter, and four grandchildren.
While they both currently reside in Brick, four hundred feet away from each other, their hearts remain with Lakewood, it seems. Both of his children have carried on his tradition of service to this township, a fact which brings him much pride.
Patricia works as the executive director of the Lakewood Development Corporation (LDC) and coordinator of UEZ.
Michael John Jr. is a firefighter for the Lakehurst Naval Air Base, as well as a volunteer firefighter for the Lakewood Fire Department. In fact, he was recently installed as the second assistant fire chief of the department, beginning the same journey toward become chief that his father culminated in the late ‘80s. Mike is gratified by the privilege of watching his son carry on his legacy and follow in his own footsteps. He was there at cheering on his son as he assumed the mantle of second assistant at the transfer of command dinner the fire department held in November.
“I never expected to see that in my lifetime. I am proud of it and glad of it,” he says.
It is definitely interesting working in such a capacity for a town as culturally diverse as Lakewood, but Mr. D’Elia is not complaining about the changes or about Lakewood’s exponential growth.
“You can’t complain about change; change is everywhere! I’m happy here, and I like my neighbors very much. I’ve lived in this house for much of my life. Would I like things to be like they were 60 years ago? Sure, but nothing stays the same and one has got to adapt. Lakewood is like any other town; it’s having its growing pains now, but it will sort itself out just fine.”
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Mike is at his most effusive when describing the dedication of Lakewood firefighters and the supreme quality of the department.
“I would put them up against the biggest and the best departments in the nation; our team is top notch,” he claims, the pride evident in his voice.
The problem, Mr. D’Elia asserts is that the fire department doesn’t try to sell themselves, doesn’t employ a public relations team so the public isn’t aware of how dedicated, how professional and how effective a team they are privileged to have responding to their fire emergencies.
As a largely volunteer squad, the fire department saves taxpayers a lot money, while maximizing efficiency as it is able to employ a larger force than if it were paying each member.
The fire service is like a brotherhood, more so than any other department in the nation.
“You might fight with someone tooth and nail on the meeting floor, but once there’s a fire, you’re united,” says Mike, attempting to describe the unity and the deep bond shared by members of the fire department.
It’s hard to truly depict though. “If you’re not there, you just don’t feel it.”
You may be sworn enemies with the guy, but when you race to your trucks to head to a fire, you throw that all to the sidelines. You both depend on each other for your very lives, and there’s nothing more bonding than that.
“You’re running into fires when everyone else is running out; you’ve got to be crazy!” quips D’Elia. “Furthermore, you’re not even getting paid to do that!”
Every day, every call, our devoted firefighters are prepared to risk their lives to spare our own, to rush unhesitating into the most brutal of fires and combat its destructive forces so that we can be safe.
With Lakewood B”H expanding at the astounding rate that it is, there is a great need for additional firefighters to join the department.
“We have to do something about educating people in the community about what the fire services does for Lakewood. We currently have four frum firefighters in my department and would love to see some more!”
One thing he would like to see education focusing on is the fact that volunteer firefighters are in no way inferior to their paid counterparts. A fire, first of all, does not differentiate between paid and volunteer fighters; it seeks to kill indiscriminately. So whether you are paid or volunteer, it is crucial to be constantly alert, aware and to be properly skilled to fight fires effectively.
The volunteers are just as skilled and get at least as much, if not more, training, and together have banded to make the Lakewood Fire Department a force to be reckoned with, a true source of pride for this town.
While people think it takes an exceedingly long period of time for firefighters to arrive at the scene, D’Elia cautions that this is not usually so. For a family standing outside watching their home burn, and for bystanders awed by the horror of it, what in actuality is only five to ten minutes can feel like forever. Precise records are kept of each fire and they have shown that only a few moments lapse from the time the call is received until the time the first units arrive at the scene.
Another accusation D’Elia constantly fields as Commissioner is that the department is constantly replacing their old trucks with new ones, on the taxpayers’ dollar.
“I’m driving a fire truck that’s 16 years old,” he exclaims, perturbed that people would levy such a baseless claim, just because the trucks sometimes look new and shiny.
The career department receives new trucks more frequently because those fire trucks are getting rolled out several times a day. But even those, are not replaced unnecessarily, only when needed to comply with insurance regulations and to ensure the citizens of this town’s utmost safety in the event of a fire. Like it or now, Lakewood is growing, which by definition means the amount of calls the fire department receive increases. They are often dealing with simultaneous calls and it is imperative to ensure that there are enough trucks in close enough proximity to every neighborhood in Lakewood to respond to multiple calls.
“Hydrants too aren’t free, we pay for each and every one, and we recently equipped our paid department trucks with the latest foam system out there called CAFS (compressed air foam system) which knocks out fires almost immediately.” So while money is being spent, it is being spent for the sake of our own safety, with no frills or unnecessary expenditures.
It would behoove us as residents of this town to focus on the absolute dedication of Lakewood firefighters who are committed to the cause of protecting our lives and the lives of our children, ready to respond at a moment’s notice to save our homes and our lives from the ravages of fire.
As for Mr. Mike D’Elia, he is looking forward to continuing to serve the citizens of this town he holds so dear, while enjoying his life, his family and spending time with his beloved grandchildren while they are small.
A family man. A community man. A fireman. In every role and at every stage, he has shown his devotion, his loyalty and his commitment. Staying out of the limelight himself, he still managed to illuminate the lives of the tens of thousands of residents of this town, in his own unassuming and inimitable manner, making this town a better and safer place for all his inhabitants. [By the Lakewood Shopper].