Tenders And Coordination Critical In Rural ISO Rating Improvement

Colleton County Fire-Rescue
Over a 10-year period Colleton County Fire-Rescue replaced its entire fleet of tenders with apparatus built on International 7600 cabs and chassis with tandem axles. Seagrave built the apparatus using ProPoly 3,000-gallon tanks.
Colleton County Fire-Rescue
By standardizing its water tenders, Colleton County Fire-Rescue increased its ISO rating substantially. Each of the 3,000-gallon tankers use Zico 10-inch dump valves and flow water at a consistent and predictable rate. The units are equipped with portable tank racks which also make it easier for firefighters to deploy them. (Colleton County Fire Rescue Photos)

Before 1994, Colleton County had 16 poorly-funded volunteer fire departments operating independently with surplus antique-class trucks and no public water system.

Water was hauled to fire scenes in tenders, mostly retired fuel or military trucks with tanks ranging in size from 800 to 5,000 gallons. All the tenders were overloaded, breakdowns were frequent and several were just downright dangerous to have on the road.

Over half the county had no fire protection at all.

In 1994 the county government enacted an ordinance to combine the existing volunteer fire departments, which had operated without any coordination, into a single agency. The goal was to improve fire protection, increase response capabilities and lower the ISO rating for the citizens.

Standardization Paramount

A Fire-Rescue Commission was established, and with the new organization came stable funding. Volunteers combined efforts, and career personnel were hired to manage the new system. 

Maintenance and standardization were paramount concerns.

An early goal was to equip each truck with fittings or adapters to allow all of the trucks to connect to one another. Policies were implemented and personnel were trained so that every station would be on the same page. Water shuttle drills were common to make sure firefighters in each community would be proficient with procedures to maintain a steady water supply for fighting fires.

The county invested a great deal of effort in establishing water supply points in ponds and rivers throughout the 1,054-square-mile coverage area. Citizens readily volunteered the use of their ponds for the installation of dry hydrants to reduce the water shuttle times.

The response of a single station to a structure fire was changed to a four-station response to insure a good supply of personnel and equipment with at least two engines for scene use and one for water supply and as many tenders as could be sent for water hauling.

The shuttles worked, but almost always backed up at some point due to the differences in fill times related to the varying tank capacities. On larger fires this eventually meant that the water ceased at some point due to the back-up of tenders at the fill site. 

Most of the tenders did not have pumps and were useless for any purpose other than hauling water. Since many were home-made, only the operators from a specific station knew how to run their truck. Standardization became a top priority.

Committees of volunteer firefighters from throughout the county were established to provide a common direction and to select the types of equipment to be used on all apparatus. It took about six years, but with the help of the County Council and a few federal Fire Act grants, the firefighting equipment and protective clothing was standardized and upgraded in every station.

New stations were built and equipped by the County Council and the Fire-Rescue Commission. Every engine and tender carried exactly the same quantity and brand of equipment. Everything was interchangeable, and every firefighter was familiar with the equipment in every station. 

With a few years under our belt, we experienced corrosion problems with steel and aluminum tanks on all apparatus. Being a rural coastal community and lacking a public water system, our agency uses multiple water sources. You get algae, chlorine, swamp water, brackish, salt, mud and sand. It was tough to stay on top of the maintenance problems. We regularly flushed the tanks, installed anode rods and coated the insides of the tanks every five years. But we still had maintenance issues. 

Polypropylene Tanks

We received great service with the polypropylene tanks on our E-ONE engines. We had started specifying them in the mid-1990s when the county started buying its first new apparatus. The polypropylene tanks on the pumpers were for the most part dependable and maintenance free, compared to the steel and aluminum tanks.

Our agency had decided to use 3,000-gallon tenders for water supply and purchased two with stainless steel tanks. On the next purchase, we bought an all aluminum wetside tender from a small company in York County, S.C., that was producing them one at a time. We were happy with the design and performance, and over the next few years, we bought four more.

In the meantime, the manufacturer – Jerry Williams at Lesslie Welding and Fabrication – was working with ProPoly of America out of Ocala, Fla., with the idea of building polyprene wetside tenders. 

Taking The Risk

When Jerry Williams pitched the idea to change to a complete polypropylene body wetside tender, it made sense, but I didn’t want the first one in the state. He assured us that the body design would be operationally the same as his aluminum trucks. We traveled to the ProPoly plant and met with Tim Dean, the company president, and his engineers. They addressed every concern we threw at them and were able to modify their standard tender body to exactly what we wanted. I recall one of them telling us, “If you can dream it up in metal, we can build it in plastic.”

We called around the country to speak to several fire chiefs and mechanics who were using polypropylene wetside tenders constructed by different manufacturers. All had positive comments. 

The oldest one we found in service had been used for four years. 

We decided to take the risk and made the move in 2001. Our first order of four ProPoly tenders was completed that year. It was followed in subsequent years with the purchase of 12 more. 
(Lesslie Fabrication was acquired by Seagrave Fire Apparatus around the end of 2006.) 

The tenders have exceeded all of our expectations. The ProPoly design ended up having a lower center of gravity and is about 20 inches longer than our aluminum tenders. This really improved the way the truck handles, even when partially filled. The baffling far exceeds what is recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, and you can hardly feel any water slosh while driving. On rural roads, stability is a major safety concern. 

By standardizing the fleet, each truck had the same two automatic direct tank fills on the rear and a 10-inch Zico dump. Each was equipped with a Zico hydraulic tank rack to make loading and unloading the 2,500-gallon drop (portable folding) tank easier and safer for the firefighters.

Scene lights were installed, and each tender was equipped with a pump for off loading water and a booster reel in the event the apparatus was used as a stand alone firefighting unit, mainly at woods fires. One 1.75-inch pre-connect is installed on each tender, and two self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are also carried.

We have had occasions where one of the tenders from a second responding station arrives ahead of an engine from the primary station and has to initiate a fire attack. These tenders have proven to be versatile pieces of apparatus. 

With the 3,000-gallon tank size, each one basically replaced three of our older 1,200-gallon units. Now, after 13 years of purchasing these vehicles, almost every station in the county has a 3,000-gallon tender of the same design. This provides about 15,000 gallons of mobile water on the first alarm, which is roughly four times the water needed to meet our fire flow requirements.

Each tender fills and dumps at the same rate, so when we perform a water shuttle it runs consistently without interruption. With this large fleet of mobile water available, if we need more, we just alert second or third alarms for water to get 4 to 8 additional tenders to the scene.

Typically, we knock a fire down with the first or second load of water, and two tenders sit unused in the road. This was a very important factor in our ISO evaluation since water supply and your ability to deliver it accounts for 40 percent of the rating. 

The goal of the County Council and the Fire-Rescue Commission in 1994 was to initiate a 10-year plan to improve the poor ISO public protection classification ratings in the various response areas from Class 10s, 9s and 7 to a uniform 7 countywide. Over the following decade, as improvements were made, ISO evaluations were conducted in various response areas to try to provide the citizens with a reduction on their insurance premiums.

We implemented centralized record keeping in 1998, which gave us a good way to assemble the information required for ISO review. This saved time and insured the records were consistent and complete. 

By 2004 – the 10-year mark – we were ready to re-evaluate the county’s largest response area around the city of Walterboro, the county seat. Its single station had been replaced with four new stations, four new engines and four new tenders, and apparatus in the surrounding areas had been updated as well.

The ISO field representative recommended that we rate the county as a whole, rather than continuing with individual station evaluations. It was a daunting undertaking, and we began assembling the information in January 2004. 

An Unplanned Endeavor

Two months later, the County Council abolished the beleaguered County EMS department and assigned the duties to Fire-Rescue. This was not a planned endeavor. The ISO evaluation was pushed off for six months to allow us to deal with the new staff and responsibilities.

That proved to be a major undertaking. On Tuesday morning you didn’t provide EMS, and on Wednesday you inherited five ambulances, 11 employees and 21 vacant positions. Along with the new duties came the mandate that all personnel were to be cross-trained within a year. Fortunately, most of the employees were already cross-trained as firefighters and certified EMTs or paramedics, and they pulled together and made it work.

In the process, we gained 31 paid firefighter positions, which played a big part in the reduction of our rating. Full-time staff ranks high on the ISO grading scale. By July, we were back on track and had the ISO evaluation rescheduled for August. 

Two ISO field representatives spent a week in the county during August, reviewing mountains of paperwork, traveling the entire county and inventorying each piece of apparatus, obtaining GPS coordinates on all stations and water points and making precise data entries on a massive map that filled the floor space of three engines.

A Grueling Week

It was a grueling week of 13-hour days, which ended with the practical evaluation of a water shuttle.

The tenders performed wonderfully and greatly exceeded the needed capacity of any response area. Another week of reviews was conducted several months later due to the massive volume of information required. One field representative put it nicely when he said that any scenario they had in their book, we did somewhere in our county.

Almost a year later, we were notified that the county had improved its rating to a Class 4 for all structures within five miles of a fire station. There were some happy people in this rural community. We were hoping for a 7 and had achieved a 4. It was almost unbelievable. The citizens received substantial savings on their insurance, in some cases over a thousand dollars, but many received around 50 percent reductions.

Filling The Gaps

The County Council and the administrator were thrilled. For a decade they had been telling everyone that the rating would improve, but all the hard work and the funds directed at making it better paid off well beyond anyone’s expectations. 

Now the challenge is to fill in the gaps. With the huge landmass that must be covered, the bulk of the citizens are within a five-mile coverage limit of a fire station, but 11 small pockets still exist. 
The council is providing the commission with the funding to fill in those holes with additional stations and equipment, but it will take another decade to get there.

Editor’s note: Barry McRoy is the director of Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue, which undertook an ambitious 10-year project that dramatically improved its ISO rating, resulting in huge reductions in insurance premiums for residents of the rural county in the southeastern part of the state.

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