HAMLET — When Hamlet firefighters tackle a blaze, only a few of them wear air packs that meet current national association safety standards.
Chief Calvin White stresses that the older air packs are functional. That is, they’ll provide air to firefighters as long as they need it.
But unlike the air packs most other departments in the county use — including smaller, volunteer departments — only seven of Hamlet’s 34 air packs will signal automatically if a firefighter passes out or stops moving for several seconds. Twenty-seven of them require him or her to remember to arm the alarm before entering a burning structure.
“If you don’t activate that (alarm) before you ever go into the burning house, it can’t activate at all,” White said Monday of the older air packs.
At about $6,800 per unit, Hamlet has been updating its air packs two by two since White became chief in 2016. The department has seven so far, White said, because one year was especially tight.
This year, he has asked the City Council for four.
That makes Hamlet different from a number of Richmond County departments, all of whose firefighters have such packs.
Rockingham has 35 to 40 that Chief Harold Isler paid about $48,000 for, he said. That’s one for every firefighter working a blaze and one for the person outside, waiting to relieve him.
Because they’re expensive, Isler said, “I’m pretty sure there are some departments that don’t have the money (for them), but most do.”
The Ellerbe Volunteer Fire Department carries 12 to each fire, Chief Will Barber said.
The Northside Volunteer Fire Department also has one for each firefighter, said Chief Ed Causey.
During Hamlet’s budget workshop on March 2, Mayor Bill Bayless — who is assistant chief of the volunteer East Rockingham department — told White that crews there also carried the new packs.
Bayless said Monday that “it’s been at least five years or better since we changed them all out at East Rockingham,” adding that volunteer departments have something those beholden to taxpayers do not: grant money.
Catching up with other departments “is just a matter of funds,” White said, and getting the new packs is more important to him than any other equipment the department might want.
“(The City of) Hamlet has provided us with everything that we need,” he said, but ordering 27 tanks “all at the same time is around a quarter of a million dollars” and well beyond the city’s means.
“I would never send (a firefighter) off with a piece of equipment that could not get the job done,” White said.
“This was a problem I’ve inherited, basically,” and the city “understands the urgency of it.”
During the council’s budget workshop session March 2, White asked for a used pickup firefighters could refurbish ($14,000) and four air packs ($28,000).
Council members were receptive to both of White’s requests, with some suggesting that he move even faster to replace the air packs — possibly six at a time.
On Monday, Bayless confirmed that White was trying to catch up to standards set in 1981 by the National Fire Protection Association.
“I don’t know whether it was just an oversight or what it is, but they (the Hamlet department) should’ve been working on it,” Bayless said.
White said Monday that he was close to solving another problem he’d inherited — being the department’s only fire inspector, a position he has filled solo for 18 years. White was the department’s fire inspector before becoming chief.
By May, the department will send four firefighters to take their statewide fire inspector’s exams, White said, marking the potential end to “a complicated process” that could relieve him of some of the 300-plus inspections he performs yearly. And that doesn’t include the follow-ups.
Even after they pass their tests, the firefighters will have to shadow White to learn procedures, he said.
“Fire inspectors aren’t well liked,” White admitted, because they tell people to make changes in order to meet safety standards. But, especially given Hamlet’s history as the spark that ignited new regulations state- and nationwide — the Imperial Foods Fire 26 years ago — they’re necessary.
“Hamlet is where it all started,” White said of a renewed emphasis on fire safety.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]