‘An emergency need’: York County fire experts say this growing area isn’t covered

One York County fire chief says there’s a large group of residents the county needs to protect but doesn’t have a plan in place.

Newport Fire Department leaders made their case Monday night to York County Council for a new fire boat.

“It’s a need, and it’s an emergency need,” Newport Fire Chief Carl Faulk said.

Newport wants to borrow money through its tax board to buy a $365,000 enclosed cabin fire boat. Firefighters spoke with counterparts in Charleston, Charlotte and Cornelius, N.C., about boats there. Kell Benson, a captain in the Charlotte Fire Department and past training officer with Newport, envisions a boat to serve all of Lake Wylie including, when needed, North Carolina.

“It’s much more than a fire boat,” Benson said. “We’re doing more than putting water on a fire. Whether it’s a boat fire, a medical emergency, anything that we call hazards, we’re there to provide that service.”

Why it’s needed

Lake Wylie has more than 300 miles of shoreline, including 111 miles in York County touching parts of Lake Wylie, Tega Cay, Fort Mill, York and Rock Hill.

York County Sheriff’s Office and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources have boats on Lake Wylie, but not a fire boat.

“There is not a fire boat, or all emergency services asset, to York County,” Benson said. “Currently the sheriff’s department is doing lake patrol, dive, and you have DNR. That’s all we currently have.”

The other two counties, Mecklenburg and Gaston, on Lake Wylie do have fire boats. However, they don’t offer automatic mutual aid, meaning York County would have to call and request it in an emergency.

If a York County fire department needed boat access, they’d have to look to the sheriff’s office, natural resources department or help from private homeowners.

“That’s a big liability within itself,” Benson said.

Benson points to a lakefront three-story home on Barron Point Road in York County.

“That’s a 9,000-square-foot home,” Benson said. “That’s pretty much equivalent to a commercial structure.”

The home is nearly a mile from the nearest fire hydrant. Benson said it would take 15 tankers to provide enough water to put out a fire there. The county has 16 departments.

“That would deplete our whole county,” Benson said. “It’s not feasible.”

But a fire boat could get closer and be connected to an “endless supply of water” in Lake Wylie, Benson said.

“It does more than squirt water onto a residence,” he said. “It’s essentially an above-ground water main.”

Many lakefront homes sit at the end of private, secluded or single drives with twists and turns. Older lakefront homes often have access only via gravel roads.

“Topography is a big issue in accessing a home,” Benson said.

York County Councilman Robert Winkler, who sits on a subcommittee that heard Newport’s request, tried to imagine a fire truck getting to one of a client’s lakefront home.

“There’s no way one of our large engines would get to this person’s house,” Winkler said. “It’s a part of the county that we do not serve.”

More than homes

Faulk said DNR gets dozens of calls a year, plus several calls through county emergency dispatch on the water. He said a fire boat could run more times than a ladder truck.

“I hope the fire boat never has to crank,” Faulk said, “because when they do, somebody’s having a bad day.”

Benson ponders what could happen if there’s an airplane malfunction with the growing number of daily flights into and out of Charlotte and Rock Hill.

“They teach you to look for the place that’s going to cause the least amount of harm to the people on the ground and the people in the plane,” Benson said. “What’s the flattest spot and most straight avenue for a plane to land? Lake Wylie.”

There are houseboats on the lake large enough to cause a mass casualty event if one caught fire and sunk. There are hazardous materials from a boat sinking. Several marinas offer fueling stations.

“We have Buster Boyd Bridge, we have the Lake Wylie dam, the Rock Hill water intake, all these multiple businesses,” he said. “Seaplanes. Hopefully, you’ve seen them flying around Rock Hill but I know there’s at least two seaplanes that frequent Lake Wylie.”

There also are bass fishing and other events.

“Lake Wylie is a year-round lake,” Benson said.

Newport leaders see the boat being used for other emergencies with swimmers, kayakers and more. York County, he said, has about 14,000 registered boats. It’s about the same number as Mecklenburg County, with Gaston County at a little more than 5,000 boats.

“We have Goat Island,” Benson said. “The sandbar is a big issue.”

Faulk points to ongoing upgrades at Ebenezer Park and Allison Creek Access Area. The county also bought 1,900 acres of Catawba River-front property in December to create a greenway. Duke Energy proposed another park in the Rock Hill area, too.

“They are bringing boats with them,” Faulk said. “There’s no protection out there for them. There’s not a district in this county that somebody doesn’t own a pontoon, a Jet Ski or a ski boat, or even a canoe, that don’t use Lake Wylie. So this is not just for Newport Fire Department. This is for York County as a whole.”

Needing answers

Several council members said they hadn’t considered such a need.

“We all live in our different pockets of the communities, and we think about things that just surround how we live,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey. “(It’s) good someone thought about this part of life safety.”

Councilman Britt Blackwell said a fire boat on Lake Wylie makes sense.

“With a heavy population around Lake Wylie, all the accidents that occur there, it needs to be addressed,” Blackwell said. “I couldn’t decide on a legitimate reason not to support it.”

Chairman Michael Johnson lives on the lake but wants answers about whether county management sees a need for a boat and financial details.

More than half the land and lakefront property on the South Carolina side of the lake falls in Councilwoman Allison Love’s district. Yet Bethel Volunteer Fire Department serving it isn’t pushing for a fire boat, and Chief Don Love said in the spring he’s content calling on Charlotte’s station for a fire boat when needed.

“There is a question in my mind as to whether a fire boat is needed,” said Councilwoman Allison Love, who is not related to the fire chief. “I’m not a no, but I’m not a yes. I just have a lot of unanswered questions.”

A fire boat wasn’t included in a recent comprehensive fire study, she said, and Tega Cay had a fire boat but didn’t replace it after it was taken out of service. Love has concerns making Newport taxpayers foot the bill for a boat if it’s not necessary.

“Logistics-wise, where should this boat be kept?” she said.

Council voted to give Newport and county administration two months to figure out details and come back for a decision.

“We want to justify the need and understand how the boat would be used, how many calls we may expect to answer or have on the lake, both from a fire perspective and from a rescue perspective,” said interim county manager David Hudspeth. “Right now we just don’t have data.”

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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