By Brad Hicks
As the population on Unicoi County’s southern end grew, so did the concern.
The Erwin Fire Department could respond to calls outside of the town’s limits, but not deep into the Temple Hill, Ernestville and Flag Pond communities. Residential fires in these areas were combatted through “bucket brigades” in which untrained neighbors attempted to douse blazes with garden hoses and buckets containing water.
The cold sweat the south end’s lack of fire protection had left many with prompted a small group of Unicoi Countians to take action, and the result of their efforts marked a major milestone this year.
An open house celebration was held Saturday, July 30, at the Southside Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad to commemorate the department’s 40th year of service to Unicoi County.
“We’re proud to be here for 40 years,” said SSVFD Chief John Hilemon. “We’ve got 40 more coming.”
According to Jim “Bones” Banner, who was among the group that founded SSVFD, efforts to establish the department actually began in 1975, but it did not respond to its first call until 1976. That call, he said, was a residential fire in the Unaka Springs area.
“We didn’t have nothing on the south end until this came into being,” Banner said.
The group that established SSVFD was made up of about nine citizens, Banner said. At the time, all that was required to form the department was the filing of a charter with the state of Tennessee.
The department has not always been known as Southside Volunteer Fire Department. Early on, it was the South Unicoi County Volunteer Fire Department – the name that still appears on the department’s charter.
“I said, ‘That name’s too long,'” Banner said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just call it Southside?'”
Following its establishment, the SSVFD was located in an old service station near the Big Hat Grill and Southside Freewill Baptist Church.
Around 1977, the department received a $65,000 grant which allowed it to construct the main station it still uses to this day. The station, located on Carolina Avenue, was constructed by the J.R. Bowman Construction Company around the same time the company was constructing the new Erwin Town Hall building.
The department’s first truck was an old Mack fire truck donated by the town of Erwin. SSVFD was able to expand its fleet by converting old U.S. Army trucks into fire engines.
SSVFD moved its operations to the new base in 1978, the same year the department received its first new fire truck – a FMC pumper truck. The cost of this truck was $35,000. Properly-equipped trucks now cost more than $200,000.
Banner estimated the department had around 27 firefighters at its inception.
Several years after the new station was constructed, SSVFD would expand its operations by converting an old Tennessee Department of Transportation road salt shed in the Ernestville area into a station, due in large part to the 99-year lease TDOT gave the department on the shed. A third SSVFD station was established next to the old Flag Pond School a little more than 20 years ago.
Today, SSVFD is made up of around 30 volunteer firefighters. The department now has a fleet of eight fire engines. Two engines are stationed at each of the department’s three stations, as is a tanker truck, and SSVFD operates two smaller trucks.
Hilemon, who has been with SSVFD for 27 years, said the department’s coverage area stretches from Beauty Spot to Embreeville and all the way to the head of Spivey Mountain and throughout Flag Pond.
“So we have an extremely large coverage area,” he said.
SSVFD also has aid agreements with the Limestone Cove Volunteer Fire Department, Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department and Erwin Fire Department, as well as the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, meaning it will respond to these areas if its help is needed and vice versa.
The department also responds to rescues and extrication calls throughout Unicoi County and has sent personnel to surrounding counties, such as Greene and Washington counties, to assist with emergency responses.
“Whatever equipment is sitting here, we’ll take it anywhere to anybody that needs help,” said SSVFD Board Chairman Jimmy Erwin.
In 2015, SSVFD responded to 247 total calls. The department’s average response time was 4 minutes 12 seconds, and the average number of firemen responded to each call was 11. The department logged more than 9,000 man hours on its calls, with around 21,600 standby hours. SSVFD personnel completed nearly 8,500 hours of training last year.
Aside from fire protection, the existence of SSVFD has benefitted homeowners on the county’s south end in other ways. The establishment of the SSVFD led to a lower ISO rating within the area, leading to reduced home insurance costs.
The department’s ISO rating is 5-8 within its coverage area.
“That’s outstanding for a volunteer fire department,” said Jerry Reeves with SSVFD.
Erwin said the department has also helped the county in other ways.
“The main reason for the fire department is to save life and make people have a better, secure feeling when they sleep at night that their children and them are safe because they have a fire department available to respond,” he said. “But we also, throughout the years, have helped with industrial recruitment. One of the things when people move in for industry is they want to look and see if they have fire protection.”
But those within the department concur the most important role of the department is protecting the public and saving lives, its crews entering dangerous situations as others attempt to flee them. The department, as well as several other agencies, recently received recognition for a life it helped save.
In March, SSVFD, along with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, Unicoi County 911, Wings Air Rescue, EagleMed and MedicOne Medical Response, received the 2016 Star of Life from Tennessee Emergency Medical Services for Children.
The agencies received the award due to their response to a single-vehicle accident that occurred on Oct. 31, 2015. Erwin said a young female was returning home and, while traveling on River Hill Road, struck a tree. The car burst into flames with its driver trapped inside. A passerby reported the accident.
SSVFD crews responded and were able to extricate the driver. Erwin said she suffered severe burns and was flown from the scene to Johnson City Medical Center and was later flown from JCMC to a burn center in Atlanta.
Erwin said there was initial uncertainty that the girl would survive, but he said after months of rehabilitation and several surgeries, she is doing well.
“With the training and participation and the great volunteers we’ve got here in our county, this young lady’s life was saved,” Erwin said. “If it hadn’t been for the people – the firemen with their feet on the ground, Wings and MedicOne – this young lady would not be here with us today.”
The Star of Life award, which is usually on display at the Unicoi County Courthouse, was brought to Saturday’s open house for all attendees to see. SSFVD personnel unable to attend the award presentation in Nashville received their medals during Saturday’s event.
“That was a big time honor for us to get something like that,” Hilemon said.
And SSVFD further agrees that the department could not exist without the help of the community. Although it receives some funding through the Unicoi County Commission, the department operates primarily from contributions and donations made by members of the community. Several trucks were parked in front of the station during Saturday’s open house allowing the community to see how it has helped SSVFD.
“If it wasn’t for that, we couldn’t exist because the equipment costs a lot of money,” Erwin said of the community’s support.
Several open house attendees commented on their pride in seeing how far SSVFD has come. Count Banner among those.
“It tickles me to death,” Banner said of the department reaching its 40th anniversary. “I’m extremely proud of what’s been accomplished. It’s not just been one person. It’s been hundreds over a period of time.”