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Bertie fire districts expand

WINDSOR – More than a year’s worth of work will soon come to fruition to the benefit of some homeowners in Bertie County.

Last week, the Bertie County Commissioners put their stamp of approval on new fire districts for the county. Their seal of approval will be forwarded to Raleigh along with new maps and paperwork for final approval.

“About 18 months ago, based on a new ruling by the NC Department of Insurance allowing the five-mile fire districts to be extended by one mile, the firefighter’s association began trying to do just that,” said Windsor Fire Chief Billy Smithwick, who headed up the project.

Smithwick said the 12 departments in Bertie County worked together to extend the five-mile insurance-rated district to six miles. Those miles are not a radius of the fire department, but rather on roadways.

“They made the change based on several things, including better roads and better equipment,” Smithwick said. “We began by looking at all of our maps to see who could cover more areas.”

Smithwick said small adjustments were made in the boundaries, which would allow better response times for those in the fire districts as well as to meet the requirements of the Department of Insurance.

One example he gave was a small area near Askewville, which will be moved into the Perrytown Fire Department response boundary because that department could reach the area in six miles, but the Askewville department could not.

“We’ve made some small changes like that, but basically nobody will know the difference,” Smithwick said.

Another major change because of the six-mile jurisdiction is automatic mutual aide, which is required by the Department of Insurance in six-mile districts.

“What that means is if there is a structure fire, a second department is dispatched automatically,” Smithwick said. “They have to respond with a tanker with at least 1,000 gallons capacity.”

Smithwick said the automatic mutual aid is for the entire six miles and not just the one mile area that would be added under the new districts.

“We did it upon request in the past, but now it will happen automatically,” he added. “We looked at all of the units to see which ones it would make sense to have paged out in mutual aid.”

The Windsor Fire Chief said it obviously made more sense to have Williamston paged as the mutual aid department when Windsor responded to a fire past the 400 block on U.S. 13.

“It makes more sense to page out Williamston because they can get there faster than Askewville or Merry Hill when we’re out that far,” Smithwick said. “The same thing is true for Aulander. It makes much more sense to have Millennium as their mutual aid.”

Smithwick said the Millennium Fire Department and Williamston Fire Department had already agreed to the mutual aid, but documents had not been officially signed.

As the process grew, Smithwick said the departments looked at each parcel of land in the county and who could best serve it primarily and secondarily.

“Our primary focus was to look at how to better serve the citizens,” Smithwick insisted. “That was the end result – to serve the citizens better and lower the homeowners insurance rates for those we could help.”

Smithwick said it would probably take 30 days before final approval was issued and then homeowners in that extra mile area could begin going to their insurance career requesting a change in their rates.

“Going from a 10 or an unprotected area according to the Department of Insurance to a 9 or 9S could save homeowners as much as 30 percent, but that varies,” Smithwick said.

While there are places in the county which are not covered by the six-mile district, there is no place in Bertie County that is not the responsibility of a fire department.

“Every inch of the county is covered in a response district,” Smithwick said. “The insurance districts are changing to six miles and some places will not be in those districts, but everyone in the county is covered by a response district.”

Smithwick said the firefighters association would work to get everyone within six miles if that could happen, but that would cost money because it would mean adding a fire department or a substation.

There are 12 fire departments in the county who worked to make the agreement a success. They are Askewville, Aulander, Blue Jay, Colerain, Kelford, Lewiston Woodville, Midway-Merry Hill, Perrytown, Powellsville, Trap, Roxobel and Windsor.