History and current status of Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company
Ed Johnson

In the old days, rural folks were their own firefighters. A brush fire would bring out the whole neighborhood using pine boughs to beat back the flames. A house or barn fire usually meant a total loss. In 1972 there was a house fire in the community that brought home the fact that the nearest fire truck had to travel over ten miles from Eli Whitney and that someone had to call the Fire Chief and ask him to come. A community meeting was held to ask people if they thought we needed to provide our own fire protection. Everyone agreed that we did.

In December we applied to the Secretary of State’s office for a charter for Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company, Incorporated. The Board of Directors consisted of Charles Snipes, Felton Johnson, Merritt Kirk, Quentin Patterson, and Bill Stanford. The charter was granted in February 1973. Later in the year Charles Snipes was elected as our fire chief and Ed Johnson as president of the Board of Directors.

Firefighting is expensive, so the first task was to raise money. We held ham & egg suppers and managed to raise several thousand dollars. But we soon heard some sound advice from long-time volunteer fire fighters that if we weren’t careful, we would use our energy raising money and have little left over for fighting fires.

We asked the county commissioners to set up an election to determine if there was support for a fire tax. We laid out Orange Grove Fire District comprising 56 square miles and promised voters that we would ask for no more than an 8-cent fire tax. This would bring in $18,000 a year. The election was held in May 1974 and passed by a wide margin.

Our next task was to build a fire station and buy a fire truck. We negotiated a loan from the Farmers Home Administration for $68,000. We bought an acre of land from James and Charles Snipes for the station and placed an order for a Bean pumper truck. We were about to construct a metal building to serve as our station when William (“Smitty”) Smith, a local masonry contractor and a new member of our Board of Directors, suggested that for the same amount of money, about $20,000, he could build us a brick station with three bays and a meeting room. We accepted Smitty’s offer and sketched out what we wanted on a piece of graph paper. He went to work and the building was completed in the summer of 1974.

The fire truck arrived in the summer just before the station was completed. Meanwhile, we had recruited a pool of volunteers and began training. On July 31st, we answered our first fire call, a case of spontaneous combustion of hay in Bob Nutter’s barn at Mapleview. Our second call was not until November when an electric motor in Charles Best’s dairy barn caught fire. In 1975 we answered 27 calls.

In the 1970s we averaged 21 fire calls a year. We were given an old oil truck, which we converted to a water carrier. In 1975 we bought a real tanker and added a brush truck in 1978. A county-wide 911 system was installed in 1979 and our call volume increased So we added a pumper/tanker.

We had started a rescue squad in 1975 to meet emergency medical needs but since we answered only about five calls a year we disbanded it in 1978. But with a 911 system up and running we established a First Responder program in 1989 that has become an important part of our mission to served the people of our district.

In the 1990s, the growing number of fire and rescue calls forced us to take two important actions. First, we hired a full time person to maintain the equipment, keep records, and to be the first person out on calls. We added another paid person in 2002. Second, we expanded our station to include two more bays, office and meeting space, and a dorm room.

We have entered into county-wide mutual aid agreements with all the firefighting units in Orange County. When we respond to a structure fire within our district, we can expect to be assisted by tanker trucks from three neighboring fire companies. In turn, when a neighboring fire company has a structure fire, we are called on to supply whatever rolling equipment is needed. When we respond to a wreck along NC54, we will be joined by a unit from White Cross. When these agreements went into effect in the 1990s, we experienced an increase in the number of calls. In recent years we have averaged over 150 fire calls and 200 rescue calls a year. In 2014 the numbers were 160 and 213.

In 2013 we began to address the issue of full fire protection coverage to all parts of our fire district. On both the west and the east side there were houses that lay beyond six road miles of our station on Orange Grove Road. These homeowners had to pay considerably more for fire insurance. In 2013 we opened Station 2 on Rocky Ridge Road to better serve the eastern part of our district. In 2014 we opened Station 3 on Nicks Road to cover the extreme western part of our district.

In 2013 we also began a concerted effort to improve our rating of 9a given to us by the North Carolina Department of Insurance, a rating which we had earned in the 1970s. Any improvement in our rating lowers the fire insurance costs for the citizens in our district. In order to achieve a lower (that is, better) rating we had to improve our record keeping, heighten the level of training for our firefighters, and pass a stringent performance test that required us, with the help of neighboring fire companies, to flow 2000 GPM of water on a fire for at least two hours. This was a challenge since our fire district contains no fire hydrants. We must obtain water from 31 water points at local ponds. In October 2014 we were awarded a rating of 6. For most homeowners, the savings in the cost of their fire insurance pays the cost of the fire tax levied on their property.

Our rolling equipment now consists of three pumpers, three tankers (including one elliptical tanker with a capacity of 2000 gallons), a service truck, a brush truck, a first responder pickup truck and a chief’s truck. In addition we have a rescue boat for use at the Reservoir and on local ponds. We estimate the useful life of a fire truck to be between 20 and 25 years.

We are supported by a fire tax levied on all property owners in our district. In 1976 our fire tax of five cents per $100 brought in about $18,000. This year, the tax is six cents (the second lowest of Orange County’s ten firefighting units) which brings us about $470,000 a year. The increase in tax revenue has been needed to pay for our salaried employees, for the two new fire stations, and for the replacement of worn-out trucks. This last expense requires us to set aside about $80,000 a year in an equipment fund. Our policy has always been to provide the best fire and rescue service we can at the least expense to our taxpayers.

As we look to the future, we foresee several problems. But we believe that we are in a good position to overcome them. First is the increasing urbanization of our fire district. We are witnessing a gradual shift away from agriculture and toward urbanization. The more people and the higher the population density, the more fire and rescue calls we can expect.

Second, there is the persistent problem that in order to become a certified firefighter or first responder, a lot of training is required. There has been a nationwide trend to increase the level of training in order to become a fire fighter or a first responder. Currently, a minimum of 36 hours of training is required to become a certified firefighter. A minimum of 24 hours is required to become a first responder. In addition, there are numerous training meetings at the station each year. Many fire companies have found that as training requirements go up, the number of volunteers goes down. Thus membership slowly decreases and becomes older even as the number of fire and rescue calls increases. So far, we have been able to maintain a full roster of volunteers. We now have a total membership of 55 fire fighters and first responders.

Fortunately, we have six certified trainers within our ranks which make it easier to receive the necessary instruction. Thirty three volunteers do both firefighting and first responding, 19 do only firefighting, and three do only first responding. We have two junior firefighters. We hold regular training meetings — at least 26 a year for firefighters and 12 for first responders.

A great part of our success has been the leadership we have had from our three chiefs. Charles Snipes served us for our first 13 years. Tommy Holmes served for 26 years. Currently our Fire Chief is Stephen McCauley who has served since 2013. Our two paid firefighters are Richard Sykes and Paul Speight. Our Chief of medical operations is Jane Waddell. We man the Orange Grove fire station from 6AM to 6PM on weekdays and from 8AM to 5PM on weekends. In addition, there is an Orange County EMS unit stationed at our fire station on Orange Grove Road which is manned from 8AM until 8PM seven days a week.

Why become a volunteer? There are several good reasons. First, we are a well-run outfit with excellent leadership and a high level of expertise. Our members have excellent morale and esprit de corps. Our volunteers get along well with our paid personnel. Second, we have good equipment to work with. Third, there is the excitement and joy that comes with working with well-trained comrades, using advanced equipment. Fourth, there is the satisfaction of serving the community. We have saved homes, saved lives, and given our community a greater sense of calm and safety. There are no public service workers that enjoy a higher level of public approval than firefighters and first responders. Fifth, there are a couple of financial advantages. We compensate all fire fighters for the gas they use when traveling to scene of the fire or rescue call. Second, for all members who participate in 36 hours of training within a calendar year, we pay their premiums for the Fireman’s Pension Fund. After 20 years of service, a volunteer will receive a monthly pension check upon reaching the age 55.

Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company has enjoyed 42 years of growth and has been able to deliver a high level of fire and rescue service to its citizens. We look forward to being able to continue increasing our level of service for many years to come.