ROCKINGHAM — East Rockingham’s volunteer fire department will be the first in the state to use water hoses to deliver air to trapped or disoriented firefighters.
The department learned Tuesday that it had won a $20,047.87 grant from the office of the state insurance commissioner and fire marshal, Mike Causey. The money comes from North Carolina’s 2018 Volunteer Fire Department Fund.
“We’re going to use most (of the grant) for an emergency breathing system,” East Rockingham Chief Mitchell Watson Jr. said. “We’re going to be the first department in North Carolina to do this.”
Watson explained how the new system would work:
Firefighters enter buildings in pairs, using hoses to battle flames and depending on air tanks for their oxygen; but firefighters who become disoriented or lost in the dark and smoke can run out of air as they wait for rescue.
The new device will allow teams of firefighters to take turns hooking into the fire house, requesting that those handling the water supply toggle instead to air for their emptying air tanks. Once the trapped firefighters have enough to breathe, they can ask to toggle back to water to fight the blaze and await rescue.
“(They) can actually tie into the hose line and breathe from the hose line, (which) pressurizes with air,” Watson said. The device can deliver as much as 100 pounds of air to firefighters’ 22.6-pound tanks, he said.
Watson saw the equipment at a firefighters’ conference last year and was immediately intrigued. Now, he has the money to install it on three trucks.
“There are two things that we don’t cut corners on” in the department budget, Watson said: safety and the training to ensure it, and the fleet of vehicles.
“(This system is) a backup plan for emergency use,” he said. “We try to give our guys the best level of protection.”
Buildings wrapped in fire don’t have to be large for firefighters to become lost, Watson said — that could happen in a house when a firefighter doesn’t know the floor plan. Or in a manufacturing plant, or a church with a complex set of classrooms.
Watson said that if such a system had existed in the early 1990s, the town of Ellerbe might not have lost an assistant chief who became confused and died in an industrial plant fire before he could be rescued.
“If we’d had this back then,” Watson said, encompassing all firefighters in his “we,” “all he’d have had to do was sit down where he was at and wait for us to find him.”
In announcing the grant, Causey said he knew that “the East Rockingham Fire Department … will use this money to serve their community even better.”
The department must match the grant with $20,000 of its own. It has received $164,671.85 from the Volunteer Fire Department Fund in the 30 years since the program began, all in matching grants.
The General Assembly created the Volunteer Fire Department Fund in 1988 to help volunteer units raise money for equipment and supplies.
Such grants have allowed the East Rockingham Department — which covers 26 square miles — to become better equipped than even some local professional departments that depend on scarce tax dollars. For example, the department was one of the first to purchase air packs equipped with alarms for all of its firefighters, something other departments have not yet been able to do.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]