Fire chief O'Brien addresses water supply problem

COVINGTON — Buying a tanker truck can’t solve the water supply problem in Newton County, according to Newton County Fire Rescue Chief Kevin O’Brien.

While about 6,500 fire hydrants are located across the county, O’Brien said about 12 to 15 percent of the county has no access to the water supply from hydrants provided by the Newton County Water and Sewer Authority.

Newton County Water and Sewer Authority Director Mike Hopkins said the percentage might be closer to 15 to 20 percent as the rural, eastern parts of the county don’t have many main water lines through residential areas that are not within a subdivision.

“The locations where we don’t have water are identified. The hardest thing when looking for a solution is knowing those pockets are so spread out,” O’Brien said. “It’s not just one neighborhood, street or area within the county.”

Hopkins said reducing the percentage to about 10 percent would cost about $7 million.

“It’s customer-driven. We certainly wouldn’t be able to install a water main on a road with only two residents who don’t support it. However, we do have a master plan and currently we’re considering a road project in this upcoming budget cycle,” Hopkins said. “We’re currently developing road lists and evaluating to make sure we help the citizens, plus take care of customer pay rates.”

After a Covington Police officer lost his home on Mt. Mariah Road to a fire in November, the Newton County Board of Commissioners asked O’Brien to provide tanker truck prices with hopes it would alleviate fire risks to homes where water supply is an issue.

O’Brien presented the tanker prices to the county officials on Jan. 21 but noted the tanker “is a Band-Aid, not a long-term asset.”

Currently the county fire rescue uses tanker trucks from either Walton or Morgan counties and does not own one of its own.

A 3,000-gallon tank would cost from $267,000 to $225,000 and would pump only 1,250 gallons per minute. It takes about 10,000 gallons to extinguish an average house fire, O’Brien said.

“The ideal situation would be to have water supply in every corner of Newton County,” he said. “Increasing water supply is a huge investment and overall the long-term solution; however, it’s not a quick fix.”

Since Newton County Fire doesn’t have the personnel to staff a tanker truck on a full-time basis, the truck would have to sit at Station 1 and personnel would have to move that unit when it responds on emergency incidents.

“We do not have the staff to operate it every day. But the tanker is a great asset. I feel that it is an improvement for the community and it can help our ISO numbers, but it won’t solve the problems in our community,” O’Brien said during the commissioners meeting.

Commissioner John Douglas made a motion to table the tanker purchase indefinitely but incorporate the discussion again during the budget process.

“Our service involves so many uncontrollable factors. To say one purchase is the best, I can’t say that,” O’Brien said. “Staff is the biggest key to success. And our water supply in the county is a far bigger problem than a tanker truck can cover.”

Instead of purchasing another vehicle, Newton County Fire focuses on improving its manpower. O’Brien now requires national certification for all firefighters. Newton County Fire Rescue is made up of 78 career firefighters and about 50 volunteers.

“We were just requiring local and state certification,” O’Brien said. “But by adopting the national qualifications, we can improve the professionalism by being held to a national standard.”