March 31, 2010

Ocracoke Real Estate:  Why a ‘fire tax’ is needed on the island


I have been involved with only one fire in my life and it was chaotic. I was sitting quietly in a Quaker meeting when someone whispered that there was a fire in my subdivision. I raced out to The Jackson Tract. As I rounded the corner, it was obvious that it was not my house but could very well be that of a good friend.

I remember the adrenaline racing as I connected as many hoses as I could to the outside spigot of a rental house and proceeded to try to spray down the brush around my friend’s house. Fishermen showed up with their jet pumps hoping to be of some assistance as the fire department arrived. My memories bring back the image of a wild, ferocious monster, with a mind of its own. There was nothing
left of the house when the fire was put out.

The recent polling of Ocracoke homeowners about a “fire tax” got me to do some research. It is important to make an educated decision on this subject.

When I began asking questions of the members of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, I was impressed and my own comfort level grew. I learned that, with the help of my friends in the community, I could rest, assured that my family and property had an educated, efficient, and skilled force of firefighters and first responders on which to rely. I say “friends” because our team is made up completely of volunteers. Only your friends would take such risks and dedicate that amount of time, out of the generosity of their hearts, for the good of the community.

Some of the first records of the Ocracoke Fire Department are dated 1966. The North Carolina Fire Marshal’s Office established the department on the island, with the basic ISO rating of 9. ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization. This organization has created a Public Protection Classification Program to accurately measure the quality of public fire protection. The scale runs from 1 to 10 -- the lower the rating, the better the score.

We sat with a 9 rating until a few years ago. I am sure that the intention of firefighters since 1966 has always been to protect the safety of their neighbors. But with new blood on the squad, there was a quest for more training, more organization, more attention to the details of maintaining the equipment and to the guarantee that the firefighters had all the necessary equipment.

I never realized how much paperwork was involved in running a firehouse. As part of their state inspection, the volunteers have to document every hour of certified training for each volunteer. The state requires 36 hours per year of training to qualify as a volunteer fire department member. We have some members who have 50 and 100 hours per year under their belts.

 The Water Department must test and document every fire hydrant. Our team has to work closely with the Water Department to determine if an adequate supply of water is available to fight fires. The capability of every pump, the integrity of every hose, and the routine maintenance of every truck and piece of equipment must be assessed and recorded. Every incident or call has to be written up and verified by each of the volunteers. The state inspection takes three days -- two for the physical examination and one day for the verification of the records. The state fire marshal’s office issues the ISO rating.

The more investment into training, equipment, and record keeping, the better the results in terms of the ISO rating. This evaluation is a measure of the quality of a fire department’s response capabilities. As quoted from the Insurance Services Office Web site, “A community’s investment in fire mitigation is a proven and reliable predictor of future fire losses. Insurance companies use PPC information to help establish fair premiums for fire insurance -- generally offering lower premiums in communities with better protection.”

Besides lowering our fire insurance premiums, this drive for more training and better equipment has another critical purpose.

Our volunteers must have the confidence to be able to handle any emergency and the knowledge to stay safe as they do it. They willingly volunteer their service. They deserve the training in firefighting methods and techniques, practice in the standard operating procedures, and a command structure on which to rely.

We currently have 33 friends in the community who are members of the fire department -- six women and 27 men. Seven of these volunteers are both EMTs or paramedics and firefighters. At the very least, this translates into 1,188 donated hours per year of public service for the betterment of our community.

At the point in time when the teamwork factor is the highest, the physical building of the fire house is crumbling.

The blocks, which were used in the construction of the building, were made with beach sand and have their shortcomings. The marshy land around the firehouse has caused sections of the first floor block wall to come away from the second floor wooden structure. The existing building does not have enough space to house the trucks we already have, let alone the ones we could use if we only had a large enough space. Valuable pieces of fire fighting equipment are stacked, one on top of the other, because of a lack of storage.

The actual square footage of the lot is just small enough that the fire department could never build to meet the future needs of the community. On top of that, the land is low. Building a new firehouse, at the base flood requirement, would create a ramp at such a pitch that the large trucks would not be able to be backed into the bay. It has been long apparent that an alternative was needed.

And then, with a little help from some friends, a parcel of land was donated to the Ocracoke Fire Department. That location on Highway 12 offers good visibility and saves on the response time of the volunteers. The rights-of-way are greater on Highway 12 than in the current location on Back Road. The square footage of the new site permits the department to build a structure that meets current and future needs for not only firefighting but the growing necessity for beach rescue.

The plan involves a first floor constructed out of reinforced block and a second floor that will be stick built. The bottom floor will have four bays, long enough to house up to eight vehicles. These fire trucks require housing so as to preserve their lives. Preparations include plans for the construction of a commercial-grade, OSHA-approved kitchen and an area that could be used for berthing in the future.

It turns out that The Ocracoke Fire Department has friends from off the island.

The environmental permits necessary to not only construct the building but also to mitigate the effects of development on the marsh have been expedited by CAMA, the Division of Water Quality, and The Army Corps of Engineers. The septic permit has been issued. The architect, who will be donating his services, is waiting to be given the go-ahead on finishing the plans. The engineer, surveyor, and draftsperson have all provided pro bono services. The land clearing and sand hauling have been donated with the fire department paying for the fuel.

To date, OVFD has received $800,000 in donated assistance. Nice friends, don’t you think?

The architect estimates a package price of $2.4 million. The process is on hold until a source of funding can be established. The U.S. Dept of Agriculture is poised to make the loan to build but needs to see the income stream. A lot of investigation into grants has been done, only to discover that the size of the population to be served is our worst enemy. The department has not given up on grant writing, but a guaranteed source of income is critical.

As with many municipalities, our squad chose to explore the idea of a fire tax to fund the construction of the new building and the operations of the department. The intention is to pay off the building with this income stream and then reduce the levy to fund the yearly operating expenses and the need for more training or new equipment/trucks. Keep in mind that the fire department will continue to seek grants to satisfy these same goals.

Our Sanitary District has the authority to levy a tax to pay for emergency services. The state also has a levy process to meet these expenses. The major differences between the two entities are significant. The state mandates a 4 percent rate. If adopted, the community would forfeit any control over the future rate. It could never drop below 4 percent and if the state went up in rates, the municipality would have to follow.

Through the Sanitary District, the power to reduce or discontinue the tax would rest with the community. The tax would be levied by the district, collected by the county and disbursed to the fire department. One hundred percent of the tax would come back to community. No administrative fee would be charged for the collecting, accounting and distributing service.

With the establishment of a funding stream, it is estimated that it would take 8 to10 months to finish the plans and get the package out for bid. The recession may have one benefit for our community. The price of building supplies has dropped by 40 percent. Chances are that the bid to build a new firehouse could come in under the $2.4 million estimate.

From 2008 to 2009, the calls into the fire department have doubled. Our crew is asked to accompany the EMS out to the airstrip for all medical evacuations. They respond to 911 calls from areas of the beach that are not covered by the lifeguards for beach rescues. Their primary responsibility is for all fire alarm calls and as first responders to back up the EMTs on emergency medical calls.

As if this isn’t enough, our fire department is focused on serious future fire threats which are exacerbated by our isolation. These are the words directly from our team:

Our density issue with the proximity of homes, trees and brush, coupled with our typical dry conditions and ever-present high winds, produced an “EXTREME” fire danger rating from the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.

We have a limited water supply. Our water department is capable of delivering 1,000 gallons per minute to any one fire hydrant. The use of a second hydrant cuts the delivery to 500 gallons per minute. The bottom line is you still only have 1,000 gallons. A fully involved structure fire requires a minimum of 1,000 gallons per minute to control and extinguish. What if another house catches on fire before the first one is out? One limited solution to the water supply question is the use of water from the Pamlico Sound.

It takes our two existing pumper trucks to combat a single structure fire. Our brush truck is capable only of putting out small fires. We have no additional equipment to stop the spread of the fire on which the pumpers are working.

Anywhere else in the world, the word “back up” would mean 15 to 20 minutes. For us, it takes 1.5 hours, from the request for aid from another fire department and its arrival on the scene. A building takes 30 minutes to be totally encased in flames. Back-up would show up an hour later. Unless they bring their own water, we are still in a position of having more equipment and people power, but no water supply.

I believe Ocracoke has many resources, and self-sufficiency has always been high on that list. We have brain power, a sophisticated set of skills, and the will to make things happen in our community. The quality and integrity of our emergency services is a shining example of our ability to take care of ourselves. With the help from our friends, this community has the best fire protection it has ever had.

The efforts of the volunteers are given freely for the benefit of the village. It appears to me that now is the time for this community to stand behind our friends and provide them with the means to take care of us and themselves.

Our fire department needs the backing of this village. Eighty-five percent of the landowners polled are willing to support the squad by allowing The Ocracoke Sanitary District to place a “fire tax” on their property. This overwhelming voice should be enough to indicate to The District Water Board that a step towards a levy is the right move. How can we continue to take from our friends without giving back?

The volunteers busted their buns and our fire insurance premiums went down! A portion of these savings is all the department is asking. I know that to say “tax” is a dirty word, but if we were to band together and return a fraction of the outcome of our squad’s sweat equity, the safety of our community will be further ahead.

There is not one family on this island that could handle a fire on its own. My experience with past fires has been that everyone comes together to make sure it gets put out. Instead of the chaos, we now have the opportunity to move in a straight line towards the goal of even better fire protection.

We should be embarrassed if we can’t make this happen for our friends.

(B.J. Oelschlegel has lived on Ocracoke Island for more than 30 years and has worked in the real estate business for 26 years.  She is a broker with Ocracoke’s Lightship Realty and a real estate columnist for The Ocracoke Observer. You can reach her by e-mail at [email protected])

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