Firefighters have to stay on their feet at all times, clearheaded enough to make quick decisions in an ever-changing environment — one that can include challenges like potential water limitations and a large coverage area

In order to battle the blaze, volunteer fire departments sometimes begin with the cards stacked against them. Firefighters have to stay on their feet at all times, clearheaded enough to make quick decisions in an ever-changing environment — one that can include challenges like potential water limitations and a large coverage area.

Arriving on scene

In rural areas of the county, which is quite a bit of volunteer fire department territory, Onslow County Fire Marshal Brian Kelly said there are a lot of factors in play that determine the outcome of a structure fire.

When an unoccupied property — like a church or business — catches fire in the middle of the night, there’s no one at the structure to learn of the fire when it happens. Likely, Kelly said, the person calling 9-1-1 is reaching out because the fire has become extremely involved.

The fire at that point is visible and roaring, and that’s usually before the volunteers have even learned there’s a fire at all.

“When that picture ends up on the front of the paper, a lot of people go ‘Well it’s just a volunteer fire department, they did the best they could.’ That is one of the worst ways to look at it.” Kelly said.

The more important questions to answer, Kelly said, are what firefighters found when they arrived on scene and how much of the building had already burned by that time.

Those answers would dictate whether the firefighters were aggressive in fighting the fire to save the building or whether they had to work on the defensive and protect the neighboring buildings and homes, he said. If a fire has become too destructive by the time the departments arrive and the structure is beyond saving, the focus would be on preventing further damage to the surrounding area.

Sometimes, he said, a building just cannot be saved.
Running out of water

Driving around the Southwest Volunteer Fire Department and surrounding districts, Kelly pointed out the few and far between water hydrants available for fire departments.

“There have been times where you run out of water,” Pumpkin Center Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jeremy Foster said.

In those cases, which are usually during the larger fires, Foster said firefighters will try to prevent the fire from spreading with ventilation.

“We’ll do something, but really without the water we can’t do nothing about it,” he said. “Without the water, you can’t put the fire out, and it’s a bad feeling.”

Luckily it’s a rare situation, Foster said.

Getting more water hydrants installed isn’t something a fire department has much control over, according to Foster.

When a new subdivision is created, Onslow County’s planning and zoning requires the installation of a water hydrant within 500 feet of the area, Foster said.

For places already established, the citizens of the area have to be involved and ask for more hydrants, Foster continued, including speaking with Onslow Water and Sewer Authority, or ONWASA.

“If it’s capable of being done then (ONWASA will) get it done,” Foster said. “It just takes a little while.”
Homeowners are key, Foster said. If homeowners pushed for more hydrants it would go a long way toward getting more installed.

“I wish a lot of people would get involved in doing that,” he said.
Creating a water supply

There are plans in place to prevent firefighters from running out of water.

When the truck arrives and there’s not a water source within the 1,000-foot stretch of a hose, responders create their own water supply, Foster said.

In some cases, the engine will park near the burning building and connect to a tanker through a hose, Foster said. That tanker can then park near enough to a hydrant to pull water and a train of sorts is created to supply the necessary water.

Other times a tanker, or tankers, will drive to a hydrant to fill up, travel back to the truck to dump the water in and repeat the cycle as long as necessary to combat the fire when the hydrant is too far away to be reached.

There are usually at least four additional departments that show up for a fire to provide more water and more bodies to help, Foster said.

One firetruck typically holds about 1,000 gallons of water while one tanker can hold between 1,000 and 3,000 gallons, Kelly said.

The goal is to get as many tankers on scene as possible, Foster said; and if it looks like getting a water supply will be difficult, Foster said he’ll call in more departments to assist.

In some parts of the county there are ponds and creeks firefighters can pull water from if it’s closer than a hydrant, according to Kelly.

The speed at which the water is dispensed depends on the size of the hose, Foster said. Typically they dispense about 95 to 250 gallons per minute per hose.

With just one hose pumping 250 gallons per minute from a 1,000-gallon firetruck, firefighters will run out of water in four minutes.

Foster said at times there are enough hoses being used to pump 1,000 gallons per minute, and if the water is available a truck can pump 1,500 per minute.

However, the more hoses used, the faster the water goes.
Response time

The No. 1 question to ask firefighters at a scene is what they saw when they arrived, Kelly said. Whether it was defensive or aggressive work on the scene depends on what happened before they were called.

For volunteers, travel time can also come into play.

Pumpkin Center VFD is fortunate, Foster said, because they have a handful of volunteers who live within a mile of the station.

Most nights, firefighters keep their clothes and shoes laid out so when the pager goes off, they can get out the door as quickly as possible, Foster said.

Overnight, firefighters are usually out the door within three minutes or less. That includes the volunteer waking up enough to get behind the wheel.

After those first few minutes, firefighters drive to the station where they put on their gear and get on the truck — and this is all before they begin traveling toward the call.

On average, depending on how far out in the district the call is, Foster said the volunteers arrive on scene at most nine minutes after leaving the station.

In those approximate 12 minutes from waking up to fighting the fire, if the structure were already involved before the call came in, it could mean the firefighters will be fighting defensively and focusing their efforts on saving the surrounding areas.

In those approximate 12 minutes or less in the middle of the night, a firefighter goes from dreaming in bed to fully dressed, spraying water at the blaze and, when it’s called for, running into a burning building to save someone they may have never met.
In need of volunteers

Each department requires a minimum of 20 firefighters on the roster, Kelly said, and all of Onslow County’s volunteer fire departments currently have at least that many. There are 491 current volunteers in Onslow County.

“In the daytime (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) we are supplemented by Onslow County with emergency responders so we always have two people at the station at all times,” Foster said of Pumpkin Center VFD.

On weekend evenings there are usually firefighters already at the station, Foster said, sometimes hanging out together until 1 a.m. The volume of calls varies, though, and just because it’s a weekday doesn’t necessarily mean there will be fewer calls.

“You could have just as many calls on a Tuesday as you can on a Saturday,” Foster said.

In 2015, Kelly said there were 4,066 calls made to volunteer fire departments in Onslow County.

And it’s not just fires they’re called to, Foster continued. Volunteer firefighters are called for car crashes as well; though the majority of crashes caused by driving under the influence, falling asleep while driving and the more involved crashes typically happen over the weekend.

In addition to the calls, firefighters have a minimum of six hours per month of training at each station, Kelly said.

However, volunteering at a fire department is about far more than responding to calls, Kelly said. They need people to mow the grass, teach fire safety courses and help complete reports as well.

Age is not a factor, either. The ages of current volunteers range from 14- to 86-years-old, according to Kelly.

“(We) want to encourage any citizen to volunteer,” Kelly said. “There is a job at the station for almost anyone!”

To volunteer at a station near you, visit