Spring 1963, evening, Pamlicoans returning to the county from New Bern eastbound on NC HWY 55 were startled to see a red sky in the southeast when they drove onto the old Neuse River Bridge at the foot of Broad street. The southeast horizon was sporadically revealing bursts of bright flames leaping into the smoke just above distant tree tops.
I came out of the house and looked over there. Flames were flying across the tree tops, just jumping ahead of the fire on the ground.
How the Arapahoe Fire Department increased their station rating.
Arapahoe is southeast of New Bern. There were no cell phones that could aid in the discovery of what lay ahead for those whose homes were in that direction. More frightening, no one in Arapahoe could pick up a phone and call the fire department.
There was no Arapahoe Fire Department.
Forests on the west side of Arapahoe spared the village of 323 people. Ben and Julia Brinson lived less than half a mile from Bethany Crossing, the center of Arapahoe, on the crooked road to New Bern, now known as Neuse Road.
Ben Brinson later related events of that evening to an Arapahoe resident who was away that day. Pointing to the charred forest west of his home, he said, “I came out of the house and looked over there. Flames were flying across the tree tops, just jumping ahead of the fire on the ground.”
1963: The Arapahoe Fire Department is Born
In June, a couple of months later, the Arapahoe Fire Department was created. Fund-raising provided used trucks from other municipalities. Almost 50 years later, the small building that was erected as a fire station would not hold 3 firefighting vehicles, leaving one parked outside.
State statutes now require every fire vehicle be kept in a climate controlled building. But that is only one tiny part of how the handful of volunteers who met in June of 1963 has evolved into an exemplary model for rural volunteer fire departments.
The Road to an Improved Station Rating
Of 1,532 fire districts in North Carolina, 372 have earned the same rating that Arapahoe earned from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Only 288 have a better rating than Arapahoe, while 873, or 57% did not score as well as Arapahoe Fire-Rescue.
Chris Murray, Fire Marshall and Director of Emergency Management for Pamlico County, and Jeff Hochteil, the Arapahoe Fire Chief, described a chronological sequence of events that created The Perfect Success for Arapahoe’s effort to significantly improve capability and insurance rating benefiting residents and businesses alike in the district.
Proof of improvement came in the insurance rating awarded to the department in November, 2017. Appreciation comes in the smiles of residents in this fire district receiving either refund checks or notices of a reduction in premiums from insurance companies.
Arapahoe Fire Chief
Jeff Hochteil, veteran firefighter originally from upstate New York, moved to Arapahoe 8 years ago and joined the fire department. Now chief, he illustrates how local firefighters committed themselves to a 100% improvement in planning, training, equipment, and the management of their resources.
Fire Marshall & Director of Emergency Management
Chris Murray joined the Arapahoe Fire Department in 1998 as a junior member. Rising through the ranks, he is now the Pamlico County Fire Marshall and Director of Emergency Management. He traces the steps for improvement that led to a better insurance rating for the district.
All was accomplished by non-paid volunteers guided by Murray. Murray became a fireman in 1998 when he joined the Arapahoe Fire Department as a junior member. In 2012, he was named the top fire official in the county. He explained, “Insurance premiums for homeowners and businesses in North Carolina are determined by its fire department’s rating, from 1 to 10. Top rating is 1. If you’re rated 10, you’re not even there. If a department has a rating of 10, it’s not recognized by the state as a fire department; 9 is the minimum recognized by the state.”
“Our effort to get a higher rating had been talked about for a long time, but the process really got started 10 years ago. We knew we had to have more and better equipment. We put our heads together and did a lot of research, setting out to get the biggest bang for the buck.”
Levy a Fire Tax
Barbecue would not pay for a new building and equipment. We mailed a letter to everybody in the district asking for donations and support. Only 10% responded.
– Elmo “Bud” Belangia, Former board member of Arapahoe Fire-Rescue
The first ingredient in the recipe that created The Perfect Success for Arapahoe Fire-Rescue was a district tax. Elmo “Bud” Belangia was a board member of Arapahoe Fire-Rescue when plans were made for the new station, an absolute necessity because the original 2-bay station could no longer legally serve the department.
Belangia recalled, “Barbecue would not pay for a new building and equipment. We mailed a letter to everybody in the district asking for donations and support. Only 10% responded. We knew a fire tax was needed, but voters said no every time that idea was floated. Then we discovered that the county commissioners could vote to impose a fire tax. We lobbied the commissioners and a fire tax was levied in 2007.”
Advanced Fire Training
In the last few years, you can see a 100% improvement in training. Some guys put in 400 training hours a year. Everybody has jobs and family, but they work it all in.
– Jeff Hochteil, Pamlico County Fire Chief
An ingredient that was constantly being added to the recipe was training. Hochteil explained. “We carry a roster of 20 – 22 firefighters. We train every single Monday night. These guys are dedicated; they’ve been here a long time. We had to document all of our training to get this rating. Chris initiated advanced training, some with Pamlico Community College’s Rufus Brinson Firefighting Academy, and some with other departments.”
Hochteil also said, “In the last few years, you can see a 100% improvement in training. Some guys put in 400 training hours a year. Everybody has jobs and family, but they work it all in. Many jobs in firefighting require specialized training. A firefighter can’t do some things, like drive an emergency vehicle if he has not been trained for that. Firemen train in skills that best suit their individual skill sets and aptitudes.”
So much of what we acquired to get this rating was a direct result of Arlington Place.
– Chris Murray
Boddie-Noell Enterprises of Rocky Mount added to the recipe when they purchased land on both sides of the Burton Farm Road south of Arapahoe, from NC HWY 306 to the Neuse River. Farmland became a residential development named Arlington Place.
Murray recalled, “The Boddie family came down here and met with us. They understood what we needed. We went over everything, especially water supply and how to deliver an adequate water supply to a fire.
Boddie-Noell Enterprises provided a grant from Arlington Place that gave us buying power. We bought hose unlike hose anywhere else in the county, rubber hose that reduces friction which can slow down water transfer. We bought 5” diameter hose to help us move a greater volume of water from engine to engine. Having adequate water supply was 40% of the score that got us a higher rating.”
“Some people wondered why we wanted 5” hose because it’s heavy. But volume of water can be a lot more important than to us pressure.”
“Thanks to Arlington Place, we were able to change out all the old fabric hose on our trucks with the ones produced by new technology.”
The Arlington Place investment was aided by another ingredient in the recipe of Arapahoe Fire-Rescue’s version of The Success Story.
According to Murray, “Boddie-Noell Enterprises saw to it that the Arlington Place grant would cover the cost of a secondary engine to be more efficient with more water. A fire truck can be in service only 20 years before it has to be replaced by a new or used truck that is less than 20 years old. We managed the truck buying so we could afford to deliver a greater volume of water to a fire.”
Smart Shopping. Smarter Planning.
Hochteil and Murray said smart purchasing of equipment saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. A new fire engine or pumper can cost a half million dollars. A 10 year old truck is almost new compared to old trucks once used by rural fire departments. Arapahoe joined Wake County to purchase new equipment in large group discounts.
Arapahoe’s Fire District stretches south to Minnesott Beach, east to the Dawson’s Creek bridge, north to Scott Town Road, west to the Neuse River. This large area, larger than all other fire districts in the county, covers 3 large camps, Don Lee, Sea Gull, and SeaFarer.
“We needed a tanker because we serve such a broad area where hydrants are not always near the fire. We purchased a used tanker from the Leonardville Fire Department on Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” Hochteil said. “That truck aged out, so we are getting a new tanker to supply our pumpers. And using that 5 inch hose with a tanker is like taking a hydrant right to the fire.
So much of what we acquired to get this rating was a direct result of Arlington Place,” Murray said, adding, “And building all those new houses has been a big boost in revenue for the county.”
As these things were happening in Arapahoe, the county fire chiefs met to study the issue of low water supplies. A tanker task force that evolved from that meeting made dramatic changes. When the sheriff’s dispatcher receives a call to a structure fire, a computer takes over and dispatches 5 tankers from 5 different departments.
“When we used to arrive at a structure fire, we had about 3,000 gallons of water on board our pumpers. Now, we know that 10,000 more gallons will be coming from the tankers,” Murray said. Pumpers put out 1,250 gallons per minute, but Murray said again that output volume is more important than pressure.
Augmenting two engines and a tanker in Arapahoe is a rescue truck equipped with a generator to power lights and equipment, including air bags to lift objects off a pinned a victim, air packs for firemen entering burning buildings, extrication devices, ladders, tools and other devices to aid search aid rescue efforts, or support law enforcement at various incidents.
Volunteer firefighters spend hundreds of hours each year engaged in intensive training to learn to operate technically complex equipment. Even more hours are expended to maintain and service that equipment.