New Highlands Fire & Rescue complex is needed and is a sign of the times

A new home for the Fire & Rescue Department has been in the works for about three years, and now that construction is underway people have lots of questions.

The foremost question is “Why does Highlands Fire & Rescue need a bigger building?’

The answer is the same all over the state. It’s getting harder and harder to get volunteers to man a fire & rescue department when responding to calls means leaving workplaces during the day and leaving families during the night.

Highlands’ volunteer force has the minimum 19 required members who each have to have a minimum of 36 hours of training. Of those, 15 are assigned to the main station and four at the substation on Cherrywood Drive. Volunteers get $15 per fire call; nothing for other-type calls.

According to HF&R Chief Ryan Gearhart, due to an increase in people, the number of calls has basically increased year after year and with an increase in people comes an increase in the number of vehicles on the road.

“When volunteers answer a call, they must first come to the department from wherever they are – home or work – then we go to the call. And like everyone else on the road, traffic affects the time it takes us to get to the destination,” he said.

Over the years, the amount of time it takes to respond has increased. In 2018 average response time, was 8:23 minutes; in 2019 11:03 minutes; in 2020 it was 12:31 minutes and year-to-date for 2021 is 13:04 minutes.

The number of calls has generally increased, too. In 2018 there were 563 calls; in 2019, 540 calls; during COVID in 2020, 562 calls and year-to-date for 2021, 288 calls, which is more than prior years January through June.

“One of the biggest reasons for building the new station is to be able to house 24-hour staffing which we cannot do at our current location,” said Gearhart. “24-hour staffing would greatly reduce response times which could in turn save a life or property.”

If the department employed full-time firefighters who lived onsite, response time would be cut considerably, said Gearhart because there would be no need to wait for volunteers to arrive at the station prior to heading out to the call.

Gearhart says he would like to have eight people full-time on staff which includes the Chief and Asst. Chief. Four would be day-shift workers 8a to 4p and two would be on the night shift which is 4p to 8a. Shift work would be 24 hours on and 48 hours off day with shift workers switching swifts. Though the Chief and Asst. Chief would work 8a to 4p, too, they are not shift workers.

“Six would do shift work 24/48 and with Robbie and me that would mean eight people on staff and ready 24/7,” he said.

He said he knows of three volunteers who are ready to submit an application.

The busiest time of the day for calls is 7a to 9p ranging from 12 to 24 calls per hour during that time with 1 to 10 calls per hour prior to 7a and after 9p.

So far in 2021, the highest number of calls is first-responder calls accounting for 46.53%. Next is false alarm calls at 20.49%; good intent calls at 17.36%; service calls at 7.29%; hazardous condition but no fire at 5.9% and fire calls at 2.43%.

HF&R runs first-responder calls to provide medical treatment prior to the county’s EMS ambulances arrival. Years ago, the county EMS contracted with HF&R so there would be quicker response time. HF&R responds to motor vehicle accidents for the same reason and to help direct traffic.

The Cashiers Fire Department, which at 135 sq. miles services the biggest district in North Carolina, has had paid firefighters for some time. It has 11 paid firefighters, 28 volunteers and 15 part-time volunteers. The paid firefighters work 48 hours on and 96 hours off with five per day and three per night and on weekends.

Cashiers busiest time is 10a to 4p. Cashiers also has 27 trucks, five substations with another in the works, all paid for with the fire tax proceeds.

Highlands’ fire district is 69.2 square miles stretching to the Georgia line on NC 28, to the outskirts of Scaly on NC 106; to Goldmine on US 64 west and to the Jackson County line on US 64 east. 

At the main station, the department has five trucks with water, a service truck, a personnel carrier and two rescue trucks. At the substation there is an engine truck and a tanker truck.

Cashiers was able to expand its station on site to incorporate accommodations and bays for its equipment but there just isn’t room at Highlands current station for that scenario.

The town secured an $8.5 million 20-year loan through BB&T for the land and the building – $1.5 million for the land and $7 million for the building. The first payment of $658,150 is due June 2022.

Loan payments will be paid solely through fire tax revenues and any money the town fronted, like to purchase the land, will be repaid with fire tax revenue.

The fire tax is part of the ad valorem property tax within the Highlands Fire District which extends more than six miles out from the main Highlands station.

Neither the fire (3 cents per $100 valuation) or ad valorem taxes (15.65 cents per $100 valuation) have increased recently, including for FY 2021-’22. 

So far, the HF&R complex on US 64 west and Oak Street is on target for completion June 2022.

Talks concerning the future use of the current fire department are underway. Mayor Pat Taylor said there has been discussion about moving the county’s EMS department to what will become the old fire station.

Pictured at the top of the article is an artist’s rendition of the Highlands Fire & Rescue Department going up at US 64 west and Oak Street.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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