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WHITESVILLE — A collection of about three dozen firefighters learned about the process of rural water movement and how it can assist them in fighting fires in southern West Virginia on Aug. 15-16.

Determining the nearest viable water source in rural counties across the state is one of the biggest questions those in the fire service must ask themselves when evaluating an active fire without a municipal water system or hydrants in place.

The use of portable pumps, the art of drafting from creeks and rivers and maintaining a water supply are elements of the process that were taught on this Sunday morning by Morrisvale Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Jason Estep, who was assisted by Van Volunteer Fire Department Chief Droop Howell and retired Morrisvale Chief Doug Estep.

Essentially, the training educates firefighters about accessing natural water sources — like the Big Coal River that was used for the class — and pumping it up the bank to a “dump tank” where it can be easily accessed and used to put down an active fire. A wire mesh screen is used to keep out rocks, trash and other debris that may come through the access line.

Most departments cannot afford a large vacuum tanker truck to accompany firefighters at the scene. Lead Instructor Estep spoke about the training that he has taught across multiple states. In Boone County, Van, Wharton and Morrisvale departments have purchased the tankers.

“We don’t always have the luxury of a hydrant close enough for access,” he said. “Regardless of that, we are still responsible for fire protection and we live in a rural county. What we’re doing is working on utilizing the water that we’ve got in our creeks, rivers and streams. We are moving that water up so that we can access it and use it on a fire.”

Estep said some of the firefighters in the class have utilized the skills to some degree, but others may be learning for the first time.

“It is an art form and it is something you have to practice to stay sharp at like anything else,” he added. “We aren’t going to become experts in one class, but what they can do is take enough of this back to their stations and they can practice on their own and develop those skills to apply in live situations.”

The class is not a required certification by the state; the firefighters in attendance from Boone and Raleigh counties were attending voluntarily to improve their departments.

Estep said his skills and knowledge came from working with his father to address a need in rural Morrisvale.

“Since I was 5 years old, I’ve been around this, and we didn’t have fire hydrants until a decade ago,” he said. “When you look at the need, we had to do this — it was a necessity — and I’m just telling the story that other firefighters taught me all those years ago and equipment gets better and you find better ways to do things along the way and it evolves.”

Estep added that hydrants across the county offer various levels of effectiveness.

“In some areas it is pretty good and others not so good,” he said. “Believe it or not, parts of Madison (county seat) are pretty weak.”

As evidence of Estep’s observation, in June multiple agencies were dispatched to Madison when a building — often referred to as the “old ice plant” on Avenue C --burned. He said the hydrant near that property was “OK” in terms of pressure, but for a fire of that magnitude, they needed more.

It took hours to control the blaze and secure the scene using water from the Little Coal River, coupled with tanker trucks.

Assistant Instructor Howell said that, sometimes, even river or creek access can be hundreds of feet away.

“That can be the biggest challenge sometimes,” he said. “Being prepared for that is part of it, too. You do your best to be prepared for anything.”

Whitesville Fire Chief Matt Lively said he felt it was important for firefighters across Boone County to be skilled at rural water movement.

“The entire county is affected by it,” he said. “The Big Coal River area of the county is supplied by West Virginia American Water Company and with just one break in that line, we are out of water past that break,” he said. “At any point you could be out of water and it is always good to be prepared and for everyone to be skilled at this process.”

He said the goal for his crew was simple via the training.

“I want to build confidence in drafting and managing dump tank operations on fire grounds,” he said. “Everyone here are volunteers and the biggest challenge is navigating schedules and this time, Sunday was the best day for everyone involved.”

Estep said the philosophy of rural water movement is simple. He said the equipment needed to support the process is covered via fire-related grants, and some of the gear may be already in possession by the departments. Fire insurance ratings (ISO) for homeowners can be lowered based on the effectiveness and preparedness of fire departments across the state. Boone County as a whole boasts good ratings, particularly considering the extremely rural nature of the county.

Every 15 years, the insurance service office rates geographical areas by three areas and assigns that area a number from 1 through 10, with 1 being the best rating. ISO then turns this information over to insurance companies. Currently, Morrisvale boasts a 4 rating and Whitesville a 5.

“If a house is on fire and there is a creek between the fire truck and the creek, we can access that creek and utilize that resource,” Estep said. “It used to be commonplace to do that and over the years, people became reliant on the hydrants. That is what prompted me to start doing these classes, was the need for these skills to be used again. You don’t have to have a hydrant near your home to get fire protection. I just want to recognize our volunteers for giving up their weekend to make their departments more efficient and their service better to the community.”

Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at pperry@hdmediallc.com or at 304-307-2401.