“We think it would be a valuable asset to the community,” said Leonard Houck, a member of the New River Volunteer Fire Department. “It would allow us to get the training we need without having to wade through all the paperwork.”
Houck, along with Pond Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lee Denny spoke to commissioners and Interim County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell Monday afternoon in a noon worksession about the need for a fire training center.
“If we want to burn something for training now, say a barn or an old house, we have to first find it, then an asbestos inspector has to come in and check it to make sure it’s not going to be an environmental risk,” said Houck. “Then, that’s submitted to folks in Raleigh for an air quality control assessment. It’s just a long, drawn out process that makes it hard to get any kind of quality training done.”
Houck said from start to finish, it can take more than a month to gain approval from the necessary authorities to secure permission for a burn site, at which point scheduling for training becomes an issue.
“Our guys have lives outside the fire department, and waiting for approval to train from on high is problematic,” said Houck.
A suitable fire training center would include liquid propane facilities, a rapelling tower, burn pits, a burn building, and a smoke room that would allow fire fighters to familiarize themselves with a variety of hazards they might face on the job. An on-site pond would also be valuable for drafting, and enough space to accomodate a driving course for the fire trucks would also be a plus.
First things first; county officials would have to find a suitable piece of land somewhere in the county.
“That’s the first thing that would have to happen,” said Chris Robinson, executive director of the Ashe Campus of Wilkes Community College, the organization that provides a majority of the training county fire departments use. “If you could find a suitable piece of land, the training center could be built piece by piece over time, to spread the costs out.”
Robinson said the county would then have to assign a managment organization to oversee responsibility for the training center.
“I’ve seen it done a number of different ways around the state. There are centers run by the local firemen’s association, by the municipal government, and by one of the community colleges,” said Robinson. “There’s an important distinction between each of these management structures as to how the center is run, so it’d be important to study and choose the right structure for Ashe County.”
Houck said adding a fire training center in the county also has the potential to reduce local fire insurance rates, though that’s also a long-term bureaucratic process.
“You’ve got to have the training in-county, which the fire center would provide,” said Houck. “Then you have to provide preplanning for all your commercial structures, water points up at points within a five mile radius, pump tests on the trucks, and training logs. Then they send someone from Raleigh who grades the paperwork and then accompanies us on a training exercise. Even the county communications center is graded.”
Still, the center could be developed sometime in the future, said Mitchell.
“It’d be an expensive project. I’ve looked at the fire training center in Sparta and it took them nearly three years to begin work on their structure,” said Mitchell. “There’s a lot of homework involved in incorporating all the costs that go along with something that large.”
Mitchell said the completed Alleghany County fire training facility cost nearly $750,000 and was placed on land already in the county’s possession, something that may not be feasible here in Ashe.
“With any project, and I’d consider a fire training center a large project, aside from the question of whether we need it or not, we have to understand all the costs involved,” Mitchell said. “The commissioners tasked me with talking to Don Adams in Alleghany, who said it was a lengthy three year process to get to the point they could start building. There’s no plans at this point for anything; we’re simply doing our homework.”