The State of North Carolina passed a special law 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 organized, they were chartered as a business. They would charge a certain amount to join (usually $10) and assess a yearly due (usually $5 to $10).
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. However, there are no known cases of services being denied.
By the mid 1970s, many departments were in bad shape financially and in danger of going under. In North Carolina, there are two methods 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 to 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.
First Elections for Fire Tax 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 1980s, 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. 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 to secure water for fires that may occur.
Salem Lutheran Church Fire
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 there is still room for improvement, our current system is much more efficient. Unless a property is located close to a water supply like a hydrant in town or a pond or river in the country, the water supply may be limited.
In 1979 - shortly after the Salem Church Fire - came the introduction of pagers. The first pagers were small, portable radio receivers made in Japan that were worn on the belt. This sped up the response of firefighters as much or more than the introduction of radios and vibra-sponders had in the 1950s. The first true pagers came a few years later in the early 1980s. When these came out, the county assigned a second set of tones to each department (one set activated the pagers only).