By David Meade
The Williamston Fire Department has been working steadily for the last three years to make the all volunteer fire department one of the best in the state. Their efforts paid off when the results of a recent ISO evaluation gave them a Class 3 rating.
“We scored the highest ever scored for an all volunteer department across the state,” said 20 year veteran Fire Chief Steve Ellison.
An ISO Class 3 designation is not an easy thing to achieve. “Normally it takes a fulltime fire department to get it,” Ellison said.
Columbia and Myrtle Beach are the only two Fire Departments in the state that are a Class 1. There are a few with a Class 2, but they have paid firefighters.
“We are the only all volunteer department to ever receive a rating this high,” Ellison said.
The ALL VOLUNTEER Fire Department has 28 part-time volunteer firemen. All are certified firefighters. One is a female. They have also recently started an Explorer Program which currently has five participants.
The Town of Williamston will celebrate the designation with a meal and recognition dinner for the members of the fire department and their families this Thursday at the Municipal Center.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our firefighters and all they put into our volunteer fire department,” Williamston Mayor Mack Durham said. “It is exceptional that they have achieved this high level with all volunteers.”
The classification has big impacts for the town’s fire rating and insurance premiums, especially for businesses and industries that are already in the town or considering locating there.
ISO is the leading supplier of data and analytics for the property/casualty insurance industry and their Public Protection Classification (PPC) survey is an indepth analysis of the firefighting system in a community. The new classfication will take effect on Dec. 31 of this year.
“Everybody thinks this will have an automatic reduction on insurance premiums,” Ellison said. “Homeowners may not see a reduction in their insurance. Business and industry will see a big change. Any plant or any business that is in the town, and they have fire insurance, a Class 3 drops rates down.”
Ellison said the new rating will be a big plus in attracting businesses to the town, an effort currently underway in Williamston through a new Main Street program.
The department has been in the process of an audit by ISO representatives since January of this year. The audit is done every ten years. Their last audit placed them at ISO Class 4, which again is not a common rating for an all volunteer department.
The ISO rating system is based on a Class 1 being the best, Class 10 being the worst. “There are more Class 9 departments than any other category,” Chief Ellison said, “because volunteer departments are not funded.”
Scoring for the classifications are based on a total of 100 points. A Class 3 requires a minimum of 70 points. Williamston scored 70.13 points according to Chief Ellison.
Training, response times and equipment all contribute to the total score.
The Williamston Fire Department (WFD) began using a new reporting program about two years ago. The Emergency Reporting system automatically sends call information and statistics to the County 911 system which in turn sends it to LLR in Columbia and to FEMA. It also makes the information readily available to the ISO Rating Company in New Jersey.
The reporting includes when the fire trucks are dispatched, when they roll to a call and firefighters response time.
“It automatically submits all the reports,” Ellison said.
The rating system is based on an allocation of points:
The 911 Call Center – 10 points; Availability of Water – 40 points and the Fire Department, the men themselves, 50 points, for a total of 100 points.
Ellison said WFD scored 32.48 on equipment, 24.48 on water and 10/10 on 911.
One factor that helped Williamston get the lower rating is a new category for Community Involvement that is being used in the rating system .
“Our fire department is involved in the community,” Ellison said.
The department participates in numerous community events held throughout the year in Williamston including the July 4 celebration, Spring Water Festival, Boo in the Park, Christmas Parade and other events.
“We reported every bit of that,” Chief Ellison said. “We also do fire prevention at all of the schools and day cares in the area. That is what actually gave us the 70 points, the new category.”
The new category and community involvement by firefighters may have given the local department the extra needed to achieve the rating, but three years of preparation, training and FEMA grants also contributed.
Mutual Aid Training
Working and training with two local fire departments, Belton and Honea Path, were also factors in a lower classfication. The three fire departments also provide backup for each other with mutual response agreements.
“We train together and fight fires together. The relationship is one of the best things we have ever done,” Chief Ellison said.
All three fire departments were graded by ISO during the same period.
Belton Fire Department, which has a combination paid chief and one man, with the rest being volunteers, also received a Class 3 rating.
Honea Path, which has all full time fire department, received a Class 2 rating. HPFD also has an aerial (ladder) truck which figured into the overall rating for all three departments.
In House Training
Training has also been a big part of the lower classification, according to Ellison.
“We are fortunate to have twelve fulltime firefighters who are employed somewhere else on the Williamston Fire Department. All of them have all of the training required.”
Assistant Chief Harold Nichols is one of those fulltime firefighters who also volunteers with Williamston. Nichols is a Battalion Chief at Simpsonville and a certified South Carolina Fire Academy instructor. “He does all of the training for our firemen,” Ellison said.
Three of the department’s volunteers have related full time jobs and are able to take care of maintenance.
They are Captain Ladane Baker, who works as a fire truck mechanic for Safe Industries; Captain Van Ellison, who is a mechanic with Volvo Construction Equipment and Lieutenant Ricky Heatherly.
Lieutenant Dave Bryant inputs information for the Emergency Reports system and keeps up the department’s website.
Availability of water is also one of the factors used in the ISO audit process.
One of the town’s volunteer firemen, David Rogers, is over the town’s water system. “He understands the importance of what is needed and has been instrumental in getting the rating to a Class 3,” Ellison said.
The town’s hydrant system is being upgraded from a two way connector to a three way connector, which allows a five inch hose to be connected.
All of the town’s trucks carry five inch hose, according to Chief Ellison. “It is like a water main on top of the ground. You get maximum water flow on a five inch,” Ellison said.
FEMA Grants and Equipment
The five inch hose being used by the WFD is all new, obtained with a recent FEMA grant.
The Williamston Fire Department obtained FEMA grants in seven of the last eleven years. The funds, totaling $600,000 have been used to upgrade equipment.
“It has been tremendous,” Chief Ellison said. “The Town of Williamston could never have come up with that kind of money.”
The Town was able to purchase a new 2014 RIT Rapid Intervention Truck last year which was outfitted with grant money.
The vehicle has 4WD and can be used in inclement weather, and can fight fires with a 300 gallon tank. “It rolls on most everything,” Ellison said. “It has everything we need for an auto accident, checking for carbon monoxide, cardiac and we have an air meter which tests air in a house.
That air meter alone costs $10,000.
The department also has two thermal imaging cameras, which can determine heat, and is used in
instances when there may be smoke but no flames. “It can see a hot place in a wall or ceiling, a hot ballast on lights. It shows heat.”
The department also has their own air compressor which allows them to refill air tanks with SCUBA quality air. The cost of $34,000 was covered by a FEMA grant.
The WFD has 18 air packs or self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), available to firefighters and 20 or more spare air bottles.
They use 800 mghz and VHF radios which also contributes to the new lower ISO rating. The 800 mghz radios were obtained with a $45,000 FEMA grant.
“We have the latest rescue tools including the Jaws of Life,” Chief Ellison said. The big truck carries the Jaws of Life which is used on serious accidents involving entrapment.
Other equipment the department has includes:
Engine One is a 1500 gpm Pumper which the town purchased new in 1992.
Engine 2 is a 1250 gpm Pumper which the town purchased new in 1998.
Engine 3, “The Big One”, is a 1994 Rescue Pumper which was purchased used in 2004.
2014 RIT Rapid Intervention Truck which can fight fires with a 300 gallon tank.
Ellison has served as the Chief of the Williamston Fire Department for twenty years. He has been involved with the all volunteer fire department even longer, since 1978.
Ellison said when he took over the position of Fire Chief in Williamston twenty years ago, the department had the lowest ISO rating of any municipality in South Carolina.
“We worked gradually, with FEMA grants and budget funds,” he said. “Over the last 20 years we went from the worst to the best.”
The reason the Williamston Fire Department received the Class 3 ISO rating, according to Ellison, was “Doing what we are supposed to do. Responding to a fire in a timely manner, training for the men, equipment for the men doing the training and reporting the information on the Emergency Reporting system.”
The Williamston Fire Department was established in 1935. The town’s first fire engine, a 1936 Chevrolet fire engine was one of the best available at the time, pumping 1250 gpm. The department still has the engine, which members keep in running condition. It can be seen at special town events and is often available for rides.
Officers for the Williamston Fire Department are: Fire Chief Steve Ellison, Asst. Chief Harold Nichols, Captain Ladane Baker, Captain Van Ellison, Lieutenant Rick Heatherly and Lieutenant Dave Bryant.
Volunteer Firefighters include: David Rogers, Lloyd Crowe, David Harvell, Bill Cantrell, Tommy Walker, Tim Farmer, Phillip Ellison, Jason Crist, Robbie Owens, David Owens, Russ DeAngelis and Patrick Baker.
Also Julia Nichols, Brian Smith, Tim Heatherly, Fred Miller, Brian Austin, Allan Ellison, Josh Sargent, Robbie Bolden, Anson Hawkins, Steven Donald, Marty Evans, Sonny Lyle, Kevin Wynn, and John Friar.
If you’ve ever wondered why some of the hydrants in Williamston are painted a color other than red, it is because the color indicates the water flow of the hydrant. “When you pull up to a hydrant, you can tell how much water is there,” Chief Ellison said.