By Stanford E. Davis
Fire departments in rural areas should spend time touring the roads in their districts. The days when we knew who our neighbors were and where the majority of the residents in our areas lived are gone. New houses and cabins are being built all the time, often well off the paved roadway. Many times, access to these hidden structures presents obstacles such as long, narrow lanes/driveways and owner-maintained bridges that we have to navigate.
1 Photos by author.
When touring your jurisdiction, look for old lanes and logging roads that appear to be in use again. Many times this new usage is a result of homes, cabins, and even businesses being built or old structures being restored. Many times these old lanes have not been widened (photo 1). In some cases, old logging roads may still have switchbacks (very sharp changes of direction with steep banks on the upper sides and steep dropoffs on the lower sides). For the owner, driving his 4 2 4 pickup or SUV over such terrain is not a problem. Taking a large (and very expensive!) fire apparatus on some of these roads, however, is simply not wise.
A case in point was a call the Sweet Valley (PA) Volunteer Fire Company responded to at an address on a local mountain road. We were fortunate that the homeowner had clearly marked the mailbox (unmarked mailboxes in rural and suburban settings are another problem not only for fire departments but also for EMS and police). However, we were faced with an overgrown narrow lane with several major washouts and ruts. The home was on the border of our area and that of one of our mutual-aid companies (both companies were dispatched). Our mutual-aid company response includes a mini-pumper that was able to negotiate the lane. In this instance, the call turned out to be a malfunctioning oven. The residents were home and caught the fire in the very early stages. We tripped the electrical supply and used a small fire extinguisher to extinguish the fire. Had this been anything more significant, the engine would have made its way up the lane but likely would have sustained at least some superficial damage—not something any of us would be happy with on a $200,000 investment! Since that time, we automatically respond our 6 2 6 forestry engine for all calls on that road.
WATER SUPPLY CONCERNS
Another consideration for some of these remote structures is water supply. On your company tours, pay special attention to any static water supplies. Be careful about “installed” fire hydrants. The three or four in our district are all ornamental—we have no municipal water supply. Identifying accessible static water supplies now will save you minutes and miles during an actual response. Installation of dry hydrants at these static water supplies can save a significant amount of time, especially during freezing weather.
At a recent mutual-aid response, we faced a water supply problem. We knew a 50-acre lake was not far off the state highway, but it was 2 a.m., and no one knew where to access the lake that would be close enough to set up the water supply. We ended up relocating to a large pond several miles farther away from the fire. Fortunately, we were able to keep the fireground supplied with water; however, a different fire may not have had the same outcome.
Inspection during daylight hours revealed that there was no good access to the 50-acre lake. With a little work, both politically with the owner and physically to clear a lane and install a dry hydrant, this could be an excellent future water supply.
Private bridges can create another hazard for the rural fire department (photo 2). While some of these bridges may add aesthetically to the property and the rural setting, they create a major concern for the fire department. These bridges may easily support personal vehicles, but will they support a 12- to 20-ton apparatus? Stopping to check out a private bridge at 3 a.m. while the house on the other side is lighting up the night sky tends to get a lot of attention from the owners and local neighbors. Check out these bridges in the daylight under nonemergency conditions.
You may be asking, “But what does the fire department know about bridges? How much weight will this wooden bridge support?” Work with the homeowner to obtain an engineering evaluation of the bridge. Several options are available to the rural fire department. If the local township or municipality has an engineer on staff or under contract, you might contact him for assistance. Be aware that most engineers will not provide this service for free. The fire department could request that the homeowner provide a certification from a civil or structural engineer on the bridge capacity. In any case, you must obtain such information before there is an emergency.
Providing fire services to rural areas presents many challenges—challenges for which you must be prepared. Make a regular practice of touring your coverage areas. During your driver training sessions, make it a point to drive down some of the less-traveled roadways. Take that Sunday afternoon drive—and bring a pad and pencil!
Stanford E. Davis, CFPS, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is assistant chief of the Sweet Valley (PA) Volunteer Fire Company. He has been a Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructor since 1989. He is a certified Firefighter I, Firefighter II, Fire Instructor I, fire protection engineer, and fire protection specialist. He is also emergency management coordinator for Ross Township in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.