Originally created 04/12/98

Bad roads slow firefighters



AIKEN -- In some areas of Aiken County, single-lane, sandy ruts twist and turn to where a mobile home rests amid the backwoods.

Home owners have lots of privacy and country living.

But the volunteer firefighters who respond to emergency calls face a twin nightmare.

They must maneuver unwieldy fire trucks along makeshift roads, through the trees and brush. And they need to know where to find a backup source of water if the fire can't be put out with the gallons pumped from the truck.

Too often the extra water supply isn't there. Or the trucks are delayed in reaching the fire.

"That is a more serious problem to me than the water problem," said Fire Chief Rick Mundy of the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department.

A family escaped injury recently, but their home on Fire Tower Road was destroyed by a fire, Mr. Mundy said.

"I can show you where the remnants are," he said. "But you'd need to bring your hiking boots."

Four years ago, the area census showed about 1,200 residences in the Windsor fire district, covering a six-mile radius.

There has been tremendous growth since then, Chief Mundy said, about 90 percent from mobile or manufactured homes.

"People will put a mobile home back up in a spot that can't hardly be reached by car, much less a fire truck." Chief Mundy said. "There's no way of talking to them all (about the risk), until we're called to a fire. I can carry you to some places where you wouldn't believe there could be a residence."

Accessibility is the greatest problem firefighters have in responding to emergencies when time is so important, Chief Mundy said.

Two years ago, county officials took steps to redraw the boundary for the Eureka Volunteer Fire Department, because there were some residences fire trucks couldn't reach over a too-narrow bridge.

County Administrator Bill Shepherd said the state eventually widened the bridge. From his perspective the water issue is the most difficult problem in the rural areas.

"You get these rural departments with pump trucks that don't have enough water self-contained to fight a fire," he said. A project to lay pipes at area ponds and install hydrants has helped out in the past few years, Mr. Shepherd said.

An enhanced 911 system has also made identifying addresses much easier, he said. The biggest problem remaining with that is places where mailboxes aren't placed where they can logically direct emergency workers to the residence, Mr. Shepherd said.

Chief Mundy agreed the 911 system isn't perfect, but it has helped tremendously in pinpointing addresses, the fire chief said.

"It's a life-saver," he said.

Residents are encouraged to mark their addresses clearly. But county officials acknowledge not everyone does so, and the county doesn't have jurisdiction over private property, where driveways may be no more than trails into the woods.

"I'm sure the fire departments would like to see it become mandatory that houses be marked. Most people comply," said LaWana McKenzie, chairwoman of the county's judicial and public safety committee. "You really put your own family at risk by not complying and add more confusion to an already confusing situation when there is an emergency."

Aiken County relies on 21 volunteer fire departments that get funds from annual fire fees that range from $10 to $50. In addition, paid officers with the departments of public safety in Aiken and North Augusta serve double-duty in law enforcement and fire fighting.

"If we had to pay a professional fire department, it would be millions of dollars," Mrs. McKenzie said.

"These people give as much to the county as any group. People don't realize the training, the hours of certification and practice that go into it," she said. "It's a commitment on the part of these people."

In Georgia, volunteer fire departments provide services in Appling, Leah, Winfield, Grovetown and Harlem. Hephzibah has a mix of five paid and a dozen or so volunteer firefighters.

The department's annual budget is $267,000, said bookkeeper Martha Allen. Salaries account for about $178,000.

Without volunteers, the budget for salary would easily double, Ms. Allen said.

Chief Robert Morris said the Hephzibah department covers about 23 square miles. At least two paid firefighters man the fire station 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said. Their area is the city limits unless they give mutual aid to Richmond County, Mr. Morris said.

"Our volunteers buy their own radios and scanners," he said.

Lt. Herbert Terry, of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department, said isolated residences in the county aren't a big problem. And, he said, lack of water supply for two areas, Blythe and McBean, is handled by having a sufficient number of tankers on the scene.

Fire Chief David Cunningham of the Bath Volunteer Fire Department in Aiken County has been with the department 45 years.

The Bath fire district doesn't have the same problem as the more rural Windsor area. It has water hydrants available in all areas, he said.

"We've got some close places, like in Johnstown where there are a lot of narrow roads. They're wide enough for fire trucks, though," Mr. Cunningham said. "It's always been that way. We don't have many fires there."

The Insurance Services Office evaluates fire departments and rates them on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being the best. Most insurance companies base fire-related insurance premiums on the ISO classification of the community. Water supply, water pressure, fire equipment and response time are some factors looked at by the ISO.

One factor hurting some of Aiken's rural fire departments in getting better ratings is the lack of water supply. The Bath fire department about five years ago earned a 4 rating, Mr. Cunningham said.

Other departments are getting some needed help from the Natural Resources Conservation Services.

A 1992 survey showed the county could rely on pond water to improve fire protection, enhance fire insurance ratings for rural fire departments and in the end lower residential bills for fire insurance premiums by as much as $500,000.

Using a state grant, 15 dry hydrants were installed near ponds across the county where fire districts had the highest insurance rating of 9, said David Howe, district conservationist.

"By installing the hydrants, we reduced the rating from 9 down to 7," he said. A new grant has been received and within the next six to eight weeks, another 19 dry hydrants will be installed with the help of Aiken Electric Cooperative, Mr. Howe said.

He estimated that another 20 hydrants will still be needed in Aiken County.

This next round of hydrant installation will focus on Salley, Perry, Monetta and Windsor, Mr. Howe said.