As plans for construction of two new North Hall County fire stations crawls through the Board of Commissioners, to the relief of residents, a perhaps trickier insurance and fire safety issue still looms: access to hydrants.
“There are many areas that simply do not have fire hydrants. Period. Those are the most difficult,” Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said. “For most of our structure fires, 75 percent or more I would estimate, we have to shuttle water. It’s very common practice to shuttle. And sure, there are times when we run out of water. We just have to stand by and wait for the trucks to bring water.”
Gainesville’s Fire Department doesn’t face the same access issues.
“All of the city is a class 2,” Gainesville Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough said. “Every single house is within 1,000 feet, if not closer, I believe, of a hydrant.”
As proprietor of public water, the city holds the keys to the resource the county fire department needs to create hydrants.
After a fire near Lake Lanier in March left hefty damage to a home, Kimbrell said that areas near the lake could access water by way of a fire boat. But he noted areas where the situation is most pronounced.
“Obviously if you just look at that map, the northern and northeastern part of the county is where there’s the least hydrants,” he said.
Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs represents many of those areas. He said the county-city dynamic creates a conundrum.
“There’s not a plan per se to install hydrants. The county unfortunately is not in the water business,” he said. “That may be something we’ll be exploring in the future with Cedar Creek Reservoir to try to serve most of North Hall, but it would be a fairly large commitment.”
Cedar Creek is a 141-acre, 7 million gallon-a-day reservoir in East Hall built about 15 years ago. Gainesville and Hall have been at odds over who retains rights to its water.
Commissioner Billy Powell also represents constituents in the areas broadly lacking hydrant access.
“Under the current arrangement, the city has a long-term plan for running water into areas of the county,” Powell said. “But they only have so much money to do that per year. So the city just expands the water lines however they can off that list and generally, it is a first-come, first-served basis. If you were on the list for 10 years and your friend on other side of the county wants to get on the list, they’re going to have to wait.”
In his 22 years with the department, Kimbrell said he has seen huge improvements in access through that arrangement.
“I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve been here 22 years, and it has gotten much better. The access has gotten better in 22 years with the installation of water lines,” Kimbrell said.
But Hall’s average Insurance Services Office rating, used by insurance companies to define property risk factors, reflects a trend in rural counties that often splits such ratings between 3/4 in some areas and 9/10 in those far from stations.
However, Powell said while many homeowners are unhappy with the high premiums that come with a high ISO rating, they don’t want to lose the perks of forgoing public water and the costs associated.
“The fire department would very much appreciate having water lines for the fire hydrants. But for the people who get on with their wells, they’re happy not to pay a water bill,” he said.
If a home is more than 5 road miles from a fire station, it is automatically assessed as a class 9/10, with 1 considered as “exemplary” fire protection and 10 considered “without protection.”
But even if a home were next door to a fire station, if the closest hydrant is more than 1,000 feet away, the ISO rating remains a paltry class 9, or even class 10.
If both criteria are met, the ISO rating is at least a respectable 4; if neither, it’s a 10.
Insurance companies may hike rates or even drop some homeowners from policies entirely if structures are not deemed fire-safe by the ISO, Kimbrell said.
But beyond a bigger insurance bill, Kimbrell said, the real concern is the possibility of losing ones most precious investment.
“We have to shuttle water back and forth in the trucks. Each carries 750 gallons. We keep doing that until the fire is contained,” he said. “Typically, we’re making several trips with several trucks, and very often we run out of wire, and then the fire just builds back up again.”
While the more immediate concern is the matter of stations, Gibbs said he hopes that down the line, hydrant access can be alleviated.
“I would like to see plans moving forward to install a water treatment facility at Cedar Creek, and then putting more hydrants,” he said. “A few years ago, the county installed some water lines that the city of Gainesville services, but it’s still kind of a limited area.”
Such a project would not be feasible until after the expiration of the special purpose local option sales tax VI in June 2015, and subsequent voter approval of a SPLOST VII.
So with no immediate solution to the hydrant shortage, what can homeowners do if they are anxious about fire safety? Not much, Kimbrell said.
“Really there’s not, other than being more vigilant about prevention,” he said.