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Caldwell student Joe Tompey, a Spring Lake Heights fire department lieutenant, stands in the wreckage of the Spring Lake boardwalk
Caldwell student Joe Tompey, a Spring Lake Heights fire department lieutenant, stands in the wreckage of the Spring Lake boardwalk the day after Sandy blasted the Jersey shore.

Caldwell University accounting major Joe Tompey never thought the first semester of his senior year would include responding to the worst storm in the history of New Jersey. He has been a member of fire departments in Monmouth County since he was 14, and in six years he’s already been through Hurricane Irene, blizzards, fires, suicides and numerous emergencies. Nothing, however, beat Sandy.

A lieutenant with the Spring Lake Heights Fire Department, Tompey left campus the Thursday before that Monday storm to get to the firehouse and go through “a huge checklist.” And when Sandy blasted New Jersey, he spent three days going out “everywhere and anywhere,” helping with rescue, downed wires, toppled trees, and carbon monoxide alarms. After the storm, he lived in the back of a fire truck for 14 hours on two separate days so the light from the truck could help the police check identifications of residents who wanted to return to their homes near the beach. Tompey is also a volunteer with the Belmar and Sea Girt fire departments, so his pager went off for two weeks. He was always ready to go, amidst the dark, the cold, the flooding. Within 10 days of Sandy, a nor’easter dropped nearly five inches of snow on the Jersey Shore, and Tompey was called to three fires, one during the height of the storm. “Fighting a fire in the snow is very difficult,” he said.

Tompey and some of his colleagues volunteered in Monmouth Beach, as well as Sea Bright and Union Beach where some of the worst wreckage from Sandy occurred. They responded to fire calls, he said, “so that those guys, many who had lost their own homes, could get breaks.” Sea Bright, he said, “didn’t even look like a town.” Union Beach had “blocks of houses swept away.” And yet he was struck by the enormous good will: the truck full of supplies from Maine, the firemen they met from Gulfport, Miss. who had experience volunteering during Katrina. They shared a common mission, and it was good to have camaraderie. “I met cops from Michigan, Illinois,” he said.

He recently learned he has been appointed captain of the Spring Lake Heights department effective Jan. 1, another step up. There will be ample opportunities to help in the spring as the Jersey shore rebuilds and works to hold on to its position as the jewel it has been for centuries on the east coast. Then there is graduation in May and hopefully a career in law enforcement. Surely he will carry the many lessons of Sandy with him, but there is one he considers most important: “No matter what the forecast, you have to prepare for the worst.”