For 65 years Highlands Fire and Rescue has been putting out fires, rescuing lost hikers, responding to medical emergencies and investigating consistent fire alarms, to name a few of the ways HFR keeps the community safe.
When HFR was first founded in 1953, the station was located where Highlands Town Hall is today at 210 N. 4th Street, said HFR Chief Ryan Gearhart. The station is now located at 322 Oak Street. Since the beginning of HFR, Assistant Chief Robbie Forrester said there are several things that have changed over time in the life of a firefighter.
“Equipment is evolving all of the time,” said Forrester. “But the dangers are actually worse. Back when HFR started, you think about the stuff in those houses, real wood furniture, cotton linens, now with all your synthetic materials like plastics, fires burn hotter and release dangerous gas.”
One of the things HFR does is respond to rescue calls. These calls could range anywhere from hikers overdue from their trip, to a possible river or high-angle rescue, said Gearhart. He added that HFR receives approximately 10 of these types of calls a year. Sometimes HFR relies on support from other stations in the area such as Cashiers and Glenville fire departments.
“We depend on them a lot,” said Gearhart. “And they depend on us, but they specialize in rescues.”
HFR Firefighter Travis Brooks said that having fire departments work together makes for more efficient operations.
“I would say mutual aid stations make it easier because of how much we communicate with them,” said Brooks. “We’re all on the same page.”
Gearhart said the biggest factor in a rescue call is manpower.
“You almost never have enough manpower,” said Gearhart. “Taking someone (a patient) out two and a half miles is slow going with only a couple guys.”
Not all firefighters can respond to each call because many of them have other jobs during the day.
There is a lot of specialized equipment that rescue teams need to be proficient with. For river rescues HFR uses equipment such as personal flotation devices, throw bags (bag full of rope thrown towards patient), rescue disc (a rope attached to a Frisbee). HFR also has a boat that’s currently under repair, they have a rubber raft and a boogie board to carry patients in the river. For high-angle rescues they bring hundreds of feet of rope, harnesses and ascenders/descenders.
Gearhart said this area is unique regarding rescues because of the terrain.
It’s really steep, thick, and wet,” said Gearhart of the area. “It’s difficult when six guys have to carry out a basket (stretcher) on a single-track trail. Plus you have to be careful and go easy on the patient.”
Some rescue calls can be as simple as the call on July 7 when rescue teams responded to Hickory Knut Gap. The dispatcher could hear the siren of the rescue team while on the phone with the misplaced hiker. The caller followed the sound of the siren and walked right out to the truck.
Not all calls end up injury free. HFR Firefighter Travis Brooks said he responded to a call of an injured hiker on Whiteside Mountain on July 13.
“He was on the trail and wasn’t messing around or anything,” said Brooks. “Then he just slipped on a rock the wrong way and his shin bone popped through the skin. Luckily the group he was with were all knowledgeable hikers and knew what to do.”
Another serious call was when Gioia Lynn Holland, 30, fell approximately 80 feet off of Glen Falls in 2009.
“I do not remember much about the actual fall,” said Holland. “I remember standing underneath the top tier of Glen Falls and being a good distance from the edge of the second tier. I remember slipping on rock, hitting my chin when I fell, and sliding towards the edge of the second tier. I remember as I was sliding I was trying to grab and dig my nails into anything to make me stop sliding. I believe it’s a blessing that I do not recall when I fell over the rocky edge of Glen Falls.”
Holland broke her right ankle and leg resulting in seven surgeries total. She broke five bones in her back, broke her jaw and lost a tooth. She had a collapsed lung and was covered in bruises from head to toe. Her ankle is the only injury she still struggles with.
“I do not recall seeing the rescue team on scene that day,” said Holland. “I know that they did an awesome job getting in to me and getting me out to the helicopter. While recovering I made a visit to the rescuers in Highlands to tell them thank you. I feel like I owe them more than I can ever give them. I want to visit again now that I am back healthy and tell them about the positive impact they all had on my life that day.”
She added that after a long recovery she has pursued her dream to work in law enforcement. She is now a sheriff’s deputy in the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina.
HFR is holding its annual Open House at the station from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on August 4.There will be free hot dogs and truck rides.
“It gives people a chance to come by and see what’s going on,” said Forrester. “We’d be in a lot of trouble if we ever cancelled it. It’s a staple for this time of year. People plan vacations around it.”