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Posted: December 5, 2013 8:40 p.m.

County concerned about rural fires

BOC looking at bigger tanker truck, more public water lines

County Commissioner John Douglas wants the county to buy a larger fire truck that can hold more water to help battle fires in areas without public water and fire hydrants, like the fire that destroyed Covington Police Officer Chris Smith’s home off Mt. Mariah Road in eastern Newton County last week.

Douglas requested at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting that the county manager seek bids on a tanker truck that can hold 3,000 gallons — triple or more the volume of a regular fire truck — and bring back a recommendation by the second regular board meeting in January. County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said tankers typically cost $225,000 to $285,000.

The most effective solutions are long-term, expensive commitments, including increasing public water service to more areas of the county and adding more fire stations and firefighters. Those will be explored, but a tanker truck could be a short-term aid.

When asked by Douglas, O’Brien said a larger tanker truck will help fight some fires more effectively, but it’s only one tool.

“Is it always going to impact (a fire), we don’t know,” O’Brien said. “Is it a tool in our toolbox that we can use that could help us? Yes, most definitely. I can’t guarantee it’s going to save every house in Newton County.”

Generally with a fire where no fire hydrants are nearby, multiple fire trucks have to respond and connect their hoses to reach and connect to a fire hydrant. Before forming the connection, each fire truck that arrives after the first one pumps its water to the truck actually fighting the fire, O’Brien told The News previously. Some county trucks can hold 750 gallons and others can hold 1,000 gallons.

The nearest hydrant for the Mt. Mariah Road fire was a half-mile away.

“Water shuttles are a tough operation to get success in,” O’Brien said. “It’s a very timely process.”

Douglas said earlier in the day on his public Facebook page and in an interview that action needed to be taken.

“It’s unsatisfactory to have houses burn down in our own county, because we can’t get water to them, whether it be a policeman or anybody else,” Douglas told The News before Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re going to have to take action; obviously laying water pipe is not something we can do tomorrow.”

Buying a larger tanker truck appears to be that action step; however, new fire trucks can take around 260 days to order, O’Brien said. Spec trucks may be available in two to four weeks if the county can find one that meets its needs, O’Brien said. Used trucks can also be purchased, but O’Brien said he wouldn’t recommend buying a used truck, because the county won’t truly know the quality of the vehicle it’s buying.

The board did not discuss Tuesday how a new truck purchase would be funded.

Expanding water service?
Chairman Keith Ellis, a former board member on the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, said he’s had discussions with the authority about possibly extending water lines to additional areas of the county.

The authority is separate from the county and does not receive any public tax dollars; it is totally funded by revenues from its public customers and can borrow money.

However, Ellis said he’d like to board to consider whether it wants to use some county water fund money — the water fund is funded by county water sales and is separate from the property-tax funded general fund – to aid in water-line construction.

“It is a rural county. We do have a lot of citizens and a lot of square miles,” Ellis said Tuesday.

Mike Hopkins, the authority’s director, said in a Wednesday interview that probably 65-70 percent of the county’s 1,000 miles of roads in unincorporated Newton County have water service, but that still leaves a lot of uncovered areas, mostly at the southern and eastern tips of the county.

The rest of the county receives water from private wells, which firefighters don’t tap to fight fires.

The cities, including Newborn and Mansfield, sell their own water and build their own water lines.

Building water lines isn’t cheap: each mile of ductile iron pipe costs a minimum of $150,000 to install underground, Hopkins said.

If there is rock that has to be blasted through, or other complications, such as a winding path, costs can increase even more.

The problem with extending water lines to more rural areas is that it can get every expensive, for existing water authority customers or for new customers. The tap fee — the cost to tap into and get water from a main pipe — is more than $3,000 for residents.

If there are enough residents, revenue from tap fees may cover much of the cost of a new water line. However, if there aren’t enough residents, then residents might have to pay a lot more to justify the water authority extending pipe. The water authority has historically been willing to pay 50 percent of the cost of installing new water pipes, but residents still may not be able to afford the remaining 50 percent.

Hopkins said the authority will look to expand water service in 2014, but it will have to be judicious. An existing list of 30 potential roads that could get water lines would cost $6.4 million to complete.

“That’s a huge amount of investment. We receive no tax dollars, so we have to raise our water rates or recover the money somehow. How do we select roads and find funding?” Hopkins said.

“But the ultimate goal is if people really want water and (they can get others interested), then it gets on the authority’s radar and gets on our plan,” Hopkins said. “If the public would like to see about getting public water on their road, we’ll entertain and investigate and at least try to provide some data back to them.”

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