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HISTORY OF RURAL FIRE SERVICE IN ROWAN COUNTY
By: Jeff Whitley, Chief - Ellis Cross Country VFD
To fully understand the development of the rural fire service in Rowan County one must first look at the development of the county from the early part of the twentieth century. Rowan County from its formation up to around 1900 had been a county of small farms separated by large tracts of woodlands. Roads were primitive and houses were scarce. Population in the unincorporated parts of the county was low and mostly centered around several small communities. The county seat, Salisbury (Inc. 1753) was a thriving community with some factories and mills. The population here was much denser and the City of Salisbury had a fire department formed in 1817. Around the turn of the century other communities throughout the county begin to incorporate. Some of these towns like Spencer and East Spencer also provided fire protection for the property within their corporate limits. Fire protection in most of the county was non-existent. As early as the 1920s with the improvement of the automobile and the subsequent improvement of roads some people begin to move from the city to lots in the countryside. Also with this movement electrical service became available in some areas. This growth in the county was slowed down shortly after it started due to the depression and in 1941 by the Second World War. At the end of the war in 1945 the country and Rowan County was ripe for prosperity and growth. By the late 1940s enough people had migrated from the cities to areas of the county that did not have organized fire protection that the insurance companies were seeing a decrease in profits due to the inability to sell policies in these high risk areas. At about this time the insurance companies, along with the Rowan County Commissioners and Chief Charles Burkett of the Salisbury Fire Department begin to encourage communities to form volunteer fire companies. In 1947 the State of North Carolina enacted a law that gave counties the authority to form fire districts in the unincorporated areas and levy a special tax to pay for fire protection.
Fire Protection laws in North Carolina (G.S. 160A-291) authorizes, but does not require, a municipality to appoint a fire chief, employ firefighters, organize a fire department, and prescribe the duties of the department. Also G.S. 153A-233 authorizes, but does not require, a county government to do the same thing. To receive credit from the North Carolina Department of Insurance, for policy writing purposes, an insured property cannot be over five road miles from an organized fire station. For this reason most cities in North Carolina provide a fire department and most counties do not. As with other services cities and counties provide, they can either provide the services themselves or contract with another entity to provide it for them. Rowan County is a vast area of 524 square miles. This area consists of fourteen townships and within these townships there are ten municipalities. All municipalities in Rowan County provide their own fire protection, with the exception of the Town of Cleveland and they contract with the Cleveland Community Fire Department, Inc. for protection. All the rural fire departments in Rowan County are non-profit corporations not government owned agencies. By the same option that allows a municipality to contract with a non-profit corporation for fire protection a county can contract with a municipality for protection. In Rowan County China Grove and Landis have contracts with the county to provide coverage in some areas outside their corporate limits.
Formation Of Fire Departments
The story of rural fire protection in Rowan County begins on November 23, 1950 in the St. Paul’s Church community. Ten people had gathered at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Livengood to celebrate Thanksgiving. At 2:30 a.m. Mrs. Livengood’s screams woke most of the family members as the oil stove in the living room had exploded and set the house on fire. Mrs. Livengood’s brother Billy Tutterow was spending the night and he knocked out a window and began handing out children, however he was unable to get to 3-year old Terry Livengood or his sister 6-year old Judy and they both died in their beds. Another child 12-year James ‘Sonny’ Livengood was severely burned, but survived. Sonny, however, grew up and had a long and honorable career as a firefighter with the Salisbury Fire Department. He passed away in 2008.He was a kind and gentle man that carried the scars of that night with him the rest of his life. As I pointed out earlier the insurance companies and the county commissioners were already urging communities to form volunteer fire departments and this was the tipping point. On January 5, 1951 a meeting was called at Roseman Tabernacle on Old Concord Road to organize a fire department. South Salisbury Township Fire department was chartered on February 12, 1951 and were in business with a 1919 American LaFrance fire truck purchased for $500. From the City of Charlotte. The South Salisbury Township Fire Department answered their first fire call. A chimney fire at the home of C.R. Canup on Old Concord Road, at 5:30 a.m. March 22, 1951. Less than four months after the Livengood fire. Shortly thereafter on the north side of Salisbury in the heavily populated Franklin Township plans got underway to organize two fire departments, the Franklin Township Fire Department and the Ellis Cross Country Fire Department. The tipping point for these fire departments was a fire in the Hawkinstown community. This occurred at the residence of the Hall family on Hawkins Circle. The story goes that a teenage girl was ironing on a screened in back porch and somehow caught the ironing board on fire. The fire department was in the early meeting stages and didn’t have a truck and really weren’t open for business yet. Years ago I talked to the late Mr. Henry Lineberry and he said he went over there along with several others that had been going to the fire department meetings and tried to help. He said that house could have easily been saved with one truck as the fire was just on the back porch when he got there. He said after feverous work for about fifteen or twenty minutes they just had to get away from it and let it burn, they couldn’t save it. Although no one was hurt, he said it was very frustrating to lose a house that could have been saved. The Franklin Township Fire Department received their charter on May 31, 1951 and the Ellis Cross Country Fire Department got theirs on August 14, 1951. Other communities followed suit and the Woodleaf Fire Department in the Unity Township was chartered on February 28, 1952. 1953 saw the opening of the Mount Ulla-Bear Poplar Fire Department, Cleveland Community Fire Department and the Scotch-Irish Fire Department. In 1954 we had three more fire departments come on board. The Miller Ferry Road Fire Department began operations serving the Salisbury and Providence Townships. Also the West Liberty Fire Department started up in Morgan Township. And the Gold Hill Township Fire Department began providing coverage around the Town of Rockwell, this department is usually called the Rockwell Rural Fire Department. The Richfield-Misenheimer Fire Department started in 1955. This department is in Stanley County, but covers a portion of Morgan Township in Rowan County. By the way they also cover a small part of Cabarrus County as well as two municiplicites Richfield and Misenheimer. In March 1956 the Union Fire Department opened in Providence Township and the Locke Township Fire Department opened west of the City of Salisbury to cover vast areas of the Locke, Steele, Atwell and China Grove Townships. Also in 1956 the Atwell Township Fire Department opened providing coverage to the southwest corner of the county and the Centenary Fire Department opened on NC Highway 150 just east of the Iredell County line. No new fire departments started in 1957,58 or 59 but in 1960 The Bostion Heights Fire Department opened at the intersection of the Old Concord Road and NC Highway 152 to serve a large area between the town of China Grove and the area covered by the Rockwell Rural Fire Department. In 1961 the East Gold Hill Fire Department opened to serve an area of the eastern Gold Hill and Morgan Townships, they also cover a portion of Cabarrus County. In 1965 the Enochville Fire Department started in the Atwell Township west of Kannapolis. And in 1967 the Mount Mitchell Fire Department started in Cabarrus County east of Kannapolis. Mount Mitchell covers an area in Rowan County. The Pooletown Fire Department, in the lower part of Morgan Township near High Rock dam was chartered on March 15, 1972 after a series of suspicious fires in abandoned farm houses. In September 1977 the Rowan-Iredell Fire Department was chartered and opened for business in 1980. They serve an area of Cleveland and Scotch-Irish Townships near the Iredell County line. All of these stations are still in operation today. The Centenary and Mount Ulla-Bear Poplar Fire Departments combined in 2001 to form the West Rowan Fire Department and covers a large rural area out of four fire stations.
Landmark Improvements Since 1951
Since the rural fire service started in 1951 several things have taken place that greatly improved service. Some of them were carefully planned, while some were by chance (tragic in some cases) that made us take notice and change the way we operate. The first of the improvements was a central dispatch point to receive fire calls, notify the proper fire department and to advise of the nature and location of the call. Before about 1955 when someone had a fire they had to call someone in the community like a local store or someone in the fire department or someone who was designated to go to the fire station and turn on the siren. There were dozens of ways to do this and every community was different and at this time many people did not have phones. Around 1955 the Salisbury Fire Department took over as the clearing house for all fire calls for rural Rowan County Fire Departments. There was a cost associated with this as all rural fire trucks and fire stations needed to be equipped with radios, something not all had before, as well as a de-coder or vibra-sponder that would hear the radio tones, unique to each station, sent by the Salisbury Fire Department that would in turn close a set of contacts at the rural station and cause the siren to start. Another cost was each rural station was asked to share in the cost of the equipment to be installed at the Salisbury Fire Station. At the sound of the siren the volunteer firemen would report to their station and call the Salisbury Fire Department and ask the location of the fire. They would then write it on the blackboard and get in the fire truck and check enroute over the radio. Something to remember, these were tube radios and sometimes we would be at the fire before the radio warmed up enough to come on, but it was much better than nothing. I don’t know what year each station went to this method, but I know Ellis did it in 1957.
Fire protection is expensive and fund raising has always been a big part of all fire departments. By 1956 and 1957 several fire departments were operating in the county and several wanted to approach the county commissioners for some help financially. The county commission listened and said they would check with other counties and the North Carolina Department of Insurance for advice. The commissioners found out that they could enter into contracts for fire service with each of the fire departments, and pay them for the contract, but first a fire district for each station had to be approved by the county commissioners and the NC Department of Insurance. These district lines could not be more than four road miles from the fire station (now the limit is five) and not overlap with another district or municipality. Ellis Cross Country Fire Department got their district approved first and began getting a $50.00 monthly check from Rowan County in early 1958. Other departments were quick to follow.
Another big thing that happened in the way if funding was the fire tax. As I mentioned earlier the State of North Carolina had passed a special law back in 1947 that allowed counties to levy a special tax for rural fire protection. This was thought to encourage fire departments to organize, but no fire departments in Rowan County had asked for this tax. As all the fire departments had organized they were chartered as a business. The would charge a certain amount to join, usually $10.00, and assess a yearly due, usually $5.00 to $10.00. The problem with this was, technically, if the member was behind in his dues or simply had not joined, the fire department would not answer a call to their property. In this case the fire department was supposed to respond to protect neighboring (member’s property) only. As far as I know, at least with our department, no one was denied service. This is not to say it did not happen, I just don’t know of any cases. Buy the mid 1970’s many departments, including ours, were in bad shape financially and in danger of going under. There are two ways in North Carolina for rural fire departments to begin receiving tax dollars. One is a Fire Tax District and the other is a Fire Service District. With the Fire Tax District 35% of the resident free holders must sign a petition to present to the county commissioners asking for a special election giving the commissioners the authority to impose a tax of 0-15 cents per one hundred dollar valuation for fire protection. A resident freeholder is defined as someone that owns real estate and lives in said fire district. The election is held at the expense of the fire department and all registered voters in the fire district are allowed to vote. The other method is a Fire Service District and in this case the county commissioners simply impose the tax without a vote. In Rowan County there are several tax districts and several service districts. The first elections for Fire Tax Districts were held in 1977 when the resident freeholders in the South Salisbury, Franklin, Ellis, Miller Ferry, and Union Fire Districts asked for special elections. All of these taxes were successfully voted in that year and in 1978 those departments begin to receive tax money. At the present time all fire departments in Rowan County are tax supported, some are tax districts and some are service districts. As a side note in the early 1980’s the resident freeholders in the Franklin Fire District secured the needed 35% of signatures to call for a second election, to vote the tax out. Again a special election was held at the expense of the fire department and the registered voters in the district overwhelmingly affirmed the fire tax.
After the tax votes some of the departments began to make improvements like the purchase of equipment, trucks, and building of new stations. But like I said earlier some changes were forced out of necessity. Rowan County does not have a county-wide water system. At the present some major corridors like U.S. 29, U.S. 70, and U.S. 52 to Rockwell has limited availability to water service but the majority of the county does not. Therefore fire departments must make pre arrangements with neighboring fire departments, property owners, and municipalities and so forth to secure water for fires that may occur. On January 31, 1979 a fire was reported at Salem Lutheran Church on Sherills Ford Road in the Locke Fire District. As was the custom at that time the Locke fire Department was dispatched alone. As the first units began to arrive on the scene, it quickly became apparent that more help was going to be needed. The dispatcher at the Salisbury Fire Department began dispatching additional departments to the scene and before it was over, more than half the departments in the county were engaged in the fight. The water source was a weak domestic hydrant in front of Hurley School, some two miles away. There were only two departments in the county at that time that had drop tanks and they were both quickly put in service in an attempt to reach a fire flow that would overcome the flames. All the efforts were in vain and on a cold January night Salem Church burned to the ground. After this incident all departments begin to develop water points, response plans, and purchase equipment that is needed for rural water operations. While we are far from perfect at the present time, we are better than we were. We all understand that unless a property is located close to a water supply like a hydrant in town or a pond or river in the country that the water supply may be limited.
The next big advancement came around this same time. I know for our department it was in 1979 shortly after the Salem Church Fire, and that was the introduction of pagers. And the first pagers were not pagers at all, but small portable radio receivers to wear on your belt. They were made in Japan. This spead up the response of firefighters as much or more than the introduction of radios and vibra-sponders had in the 1950’s. I believe the first true pagers came a few years later in the early 1980’s. When these came out the county assigned a second set of tones to each department, one set activated the pagers only.
The 1980’s were a time of growth and prosperity for many fire departments in the county. Many departments were getting the fire tax and funding was closer to where it needed to be. A lot of equipment was purchased, old stations replaced, water points established, preplans and response plans drawn and probably the biggest thing was the rural departments began to work more closely with the municipal departments. In 1987 the county did something that helped all the emergency services and that is enhanced 911. Now the dispatchers for law, fire , and EMS are in one location and have the same number, 911. The dispatcher is now able to see on the computer screen the exact location of the fire as well as what fire apparatus to dispatch. With the dispatcher now able to know where the call came from it has stopped a lot of false alarms. We still have false alarms, however , now we call it a fire alarm activation. So much for technology. By 1988 two rural departments had lowered their Insurance Rating to below a class 9. They were South Salisbury (7) and Franklin (6). Today many departments have improved their insurance ratings. This means property owners in those districts will see a savings on their insurance premiums. These improvements came none too soon as this was a time when the population in the county began to increase dramatically. Also during the 1980’s Rowan County EMS started the medical responder program. Whenever EMS is sent to a medical emergency in a rural fire district or a municipality a trained and certified team from the respective fire department is paged also. This has worked well over the years as it gets trained personal on the scene much sooner than an ambulance can get there. It also provides more people to help move a patient as Rowan EMS usually runs with a team of two. I believe Scotch-Irish Fire Department was the first department to provide this service in about 1987. This program works well and I believe it has saved lives as well as relieved a lot if suffering.
The last major change that I have seen also came out of tragedy. And that was the Salisbury Millworks fire on March 7, 2008. As you know we lost two Salisbury firefighters, Victor Isler and Justin Monroe, and several more were injured. This shook every fire department and every firefighter in Rowan County to the core. I don’t think we’re over it yet. Firefighting is inherently dangerous and it will never be 100% safe, but there are things that can be done to minimize the risk. Things like do not begin interior operations without a backup hose team ready to get the first team out if need be. And the practice of establishing a Rapid Intervention Team. This is a fresh crew of firefighters at the scene, and at the ready with extra gear and whatever else they think they may need to rescue distressed firefighters. As I look back at that incident I can see how our department had become overconfident, because we had been generally successful and it had been years since we had lost a firefighter in this fashion in the county. I think it made us realize more that a fire is a natural occurrence of nature and when you go to fight it, it is an un-forgiving foe. No one wants to have a building burn down, especially a firefighter, but we must realize that whenever we commit ourselves to go inside a burning building or get up close to a fire we must be able to prevail, if not we must take a defensive stance outside of the building or from a safe distance.
The Rural Fire Service Today
Today Rowan County continues to have the same twenty one rural fire departments operating that it has always had. This is saying a lot because in many counties rural fire departments have been forced to close. This can be due to many reasons such as loss of interest of volunteers, loss of money (many times caused by annexation of a city), or they decided it would be better to combine with another rural department of contract their fire protection with a city. The running of a fire department or the life of a volunteer firefighter has not got any easier over the years. We now run many more calls, when I joined in 1976, Ellis ran about 12 calls a year in 2012 we ran 295. 295 calls is a low number for Rowan County as some rural fire departments run a lot more. Fire departments now have more regulations to comply with and the general public expects more from the fire departments than they once did. For these reasons the costs of operating a fire department has also increased, almost to the point that some can’t keep up. Volunteers are also getting harder and harder to find and keep and this has forced some fire departments to hire paid staff to answer calls during the daytime hours. So departments recognize the need for paid staff, but cannot find the money to hire them. In closing, I want to encourage you to get involved with your local rural fire department to see how you can help. You may not be able to be a firefighter, but there are lots of other things to do. Remember a rural fire department is a business, we need board members, fire commissioners, bookkeepers, housecleaners, groundskeepers, maintenance people, mechanics and the list could go on. Go to the annual meeting and get involved, everyone can help for the betterment of the community.