LUMBERTON — Nearly 13 months to the day that Hurricane Matthew’s floodwaters rose in and around the Pine Terrace Fire Department, Chief Todd Allen couldn’t help but get a little emotional Thursday while describing that experience.
Allen told the tale of how the flooding hit and compromised the fire department, and his home across the road, to North Carolina Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Mike Causey, Chief State Fire Marshal Brian Taylor, and others in the building being built to house the fire department.
“It was just a devastating thing to see your fire department getting ruined,” Allen said. “I think everything is going to be mighty fine here before too long. We’ve about got this thing wrapped up and hopefully in a couple months we can get back in here.”
The visit by Causey was one of six stops on his tour of fire departments in Robeson County. Causey, the first Republican state insurance insurance commissioner, was voted in last November and has toured the state to see what improvements need to be made, and what struggles fire departments across the state face.
While he has seen many fire departments, Causey said he has yet to see any struggles that compare with what Pine Terrace has faced.
“I don’t know of any other department in the state that has faced more struggles than this one, when you lose your whole department, your chief loses his home and you lose your main equipment,” Causey said. “I’m happy to see they’re making good progress on rebuilding this department, but we want to see if there is anything we can do from the state level to help them with any of their needs, like equipment, personnel or any other grant needs.”
The fire department, located on Alamac Road and in one of the hardest hit areas in Lumberton, lost three fire trucks that couldn’t be moved to higher ground before the water encroached, and Allen’s house was flooded. Now the metal building is nearing the end of construction across the road from a brick house that was build in a weekend when fire departments from across the state sent volunteers who built and furnished the house at no cost to Allen.
Since the disaster, the Pine Terrace Fire Department has run calls with its four trucks that are parked in a driveway beside the fire department’s future home. Allen informed the representatives from the state of the changes the fire department has made since then and the financial help it has received, including a $405,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
“I just wanted to let him know that we’ve been struggling a lot here before we got some help from Golden LEAF because we didn’t have a clue where we were standing at,” Allen said. “I was just letting him know that I appreciate their help and that we do get grants from them.”
Causey has noticed during his visits across the state that there is a downward trend of the number of volunteer firemen, but in some places that’s not the case in Robeson County.
“We have talked to a fire chief or two here in Robeson County that’s not struggling with volunteers, but maybe other issues like grant money or certain types of equipment,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can from the Office of the State Fire Marshal to help our volunteer fire departments.”
Earlier on the tour, Causey met with members of the Pembroke and Pembroke rural fire departments that provide aid to The University of North Carolina at Pembroke to discuss how Pembroke Rural would go about getting a new ladder truck to serve the campus that has some of the tallest buildings in Robeson County.
The department’s current ladder truck can serve the pair of six-story dorms on campus. But, Tim Chavis, chairman of the Pembroke Rural fire board, said there has been proactive talks with the university on the need for a newer truck before maintenance costs start to increase for the 11-year-old apparatus. Chavis and Pembroke Rural Chief Craig Maynor say the vehicle is starting to near the end of the time frame that a ladder truck usually stays in commission.
“Our main dialog has been with (UNCP) Chancellor (Robin) Cummings and Travis Bryant, the associate vice chancellor of public safety. We have talked with them a lot on some of the things we will need. A ladder truck is one of them,” Chavis said. “There’s a recommendation of 15 to 20 years life of a ladder truck and we are nearing that. That’s why the conversation now is getting stronger.”
The need for a new truck is there, but helping find the funds is what the fire departments were hoping would be a little easier to learn by talking with Causey, and they felt this was a step in the right direction in its forward-thinking plan to serve Pembroke Rural’s district.
“We have been in some dialogue with Sen. (Danny) Britt and he is helping us aggressively, along with the university,” Chavis said.
The commissioner echoed that the path Pembroke Rural is taking is a good one in the pursuit of funding, and learning how the university can help find funding for a truck that has a price tag of about $750,000.
“With the university having vested interests, I think the chancellor and the university can help you lobby for it through a collaboration with the legislators that see a need for funding,” Causey said.
Cummings attended the meeting and mentioned to Causey how an up-to-date ladder truck is a necessity for the fire department going forward, particularly in light of the fact that student enrollment is expected to increase to 8,000 to 10,000 in the coming years with the N.C. Promise tuition coming into effect next fall semester.
“We anticipate growth so it is important we have this dialogue going forward,” Cummings said.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.