Mike D’Elia: Fifty Years And Counting; Running Unopposed Tomorrow

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.

Growing Pains

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.

Contentions

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.

In Conclusion

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].

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13 COMMENTS

  1. To strangee – who wrote “Vote NO on the budget!!”
    Well, the upcoming budget is smaller than last year. Isn’t that good enough for you? Think about your house on fire with your children trapped inside and, on the way to your fire, the truck breaks down because of no money for maintenance, blocking other trucks from entering the new narrow streets. Is that what you want?

  2. Vote no on the budget! It is a lean budget but they still have much in savings and no truck purchases this coming year so there is no need for tax increase! Keep it the same as last year
    Thank you mike for your service – great article!

  3. Vote NO on the budget!!
    WHY????????????????????
    With the growth in this town that makes absolutely no sense at all
    do you really want to put all those who live in lakewood at risk beecause you want to save a few dollars ?

  4. Voting No on our budget will get us no where we do not have a surplus anymore thanks to the countless residents that vote no every year.. We dont have ANY Fat in the budget. If you vote No this year it will go into safety of our members and the safety of the residents..You can not run a dept on a budget from 10 yrs ago. YOU JUST CAN”T.
    We need your help to do what we do. Without us you will feel the pinch as well..Dont worry we will be here as much as we can but cutting what is already a lean budget is not helping us help you..If you cut now you will see less of us because we will have no money for anything..Its going to be the Lakewood Fire Dept that fight fires..and that is it..no more extra details, why? Because there is no money.
    Thank you

  5. For years there was always a surplus of funds to handle an emergency that presented itself to the fire dept. The public the last few years has made its voice heard by voting down the past few fire budgets. “The fire commissioners are putting away too money for a rainy day – they don’t need that much,” lower my taxes” I can understand the frustration of the voters/taxpayers – all government needs to reduce spending and reduce the tax burden. I too pay taxes and understand that belts need to be tightened.
    But there comes a time when after a few years that a budget is so lean because of being voted down that when the unexpected occurs there is little if any money to replace or repair items that break or get destroyed while fighting a blaze or under normal use . I’m not talking about the fire apparatus or the fire houses but the equipment that is carried on the apparatus and the firefighters gear.
    All specialized equipment has a expected life span, the electronic meters, the airpacks, the firefighter gear, hose, radios, ect. All of it must be replaced every so often or updated because of the harsh environments that it is used in . In the perfect world future purchases are planed and budgeted for. But in the imperfect world of firefighting things happen- equipment breaks, gear is destroyed , pumps blow up, radio fail ,infrared camera and other meters are damaged or become outdated . Firefighters are a resourceful bunch of people and can overcome most problems and adapt, but there comes a tipping point when you don’t have enough funds set aside to replace CRITICAL equipment that fails or needs to be replaced sooner than expected that you handcuff the firefighters from being able to do the job correctly if they don’t have the right tools.
    PLEASE don’t let the Lakewood Fire Dept get to that point to where they are handcuffed from doing their job because of money woes – because that day is coming very soon if the budget keeps getting defeated
    Please re-elect Commissioner Mike D’Elia and VOTE YES on the fire budget – its lean enough

  6. I would love for people who say to vote no on the budget to use their real names. As I have said before I challenge anyone to find a problem with the budget. Halevay the townships budget was as clean. There is a reason Larry was only able to trim off 200k. How much in savings is that for your taxes? Lakewood right now has only two paid trucks. The rest are volunteer. Do you want the volunteers to get fed up not having what they need and quit? Then you will be paying for an entire force which will be a lot more expensive. The township budget is another story….

  7. As some one who had to call the fire department once in the middle of the night because my smoke detectors went off and there was smoke in my house. The fire department was there within minutes and was able to put out the fire with very little damage to my house. This was at 3.00am. These volunteers got up and came running to save me with out any questions to who it was.

    I just went to go vote and I VOTED YES on the budget. and I think everyone should do the same. These brave men deserve our respect for what they do FOR FREE. If it cost us a few dollars (and I only mean a few dollars) it is worth it. Help them save our lives.

    Thank You Lakewood Fire Department.

  8. Keep voting no on the buget and you will be paying a lot more in taxes when Lakewood is forced to go to a FULL PAID dept. then you will wish you voted yes. VOTE YES on the budget.

  9. Mike is one of the finest guys around , always willing to lend a hand and help out no matter to whom it is . A real MENTSCH . Many more happy and healthy years Mike !!

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