John Howell Sr. Editorial 1/30/2015

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 30, 2015

Fire rating decision recognizes abilities of volunteers

Word that the Mississippi State Rating Bureau is redefining fire district classifications to bring lower costs insurance premiums to homeowners in rural areas is an important benchmark in the evolution of volunteer fire departments in Panola County.(“Improved fire ratings mean reduced premiums,” page 3A.)
 I remember early on a cold Christmas morning in 1960 as I rode my bicycle to deliver The Commercial Appeal to Batesville subscribers hearing the town siren blare its summons to Batesville’s volunteer firemen.

Later that day, I would learn that they were responding to Barnacre Lodge, the southern-mansion-style home built by lumbermill baron Robert Carrier and later purchased by the Pattridge family.

There was little that the Batesville firemen could do — responding from miles away with what water they could carry in their truck’s tank — but cool the ashes. That was the nature of rural firefighting in those days. The closest volunteer fire departments responded from Panola’s municipalities, usually many minutes and many miles away.

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That began to change in the 1970s as smaller municipalites and unincorporated communities in the county began organizing their own volunteer fire departments.  With them volunteering is not limited to just firefighting but also to raising the money necessary to make up the difference between what county government has been able to provide toward purchasing the expensive trucks and other equipment to fight fires.

In communities where, before consolidation, rural schools had been the institutions that most residents rallied around, volunteer fire departments became the focus, attracting support from all segments of the communities. In the early days, they were a ragtag bunch, equipped with military surplus trucks and hand-me-downs from other departments.

But they improved in both equipment and in training. Volunteers willingly donated their time not only responding to fires and other emergencies, but also to become better trained.

They are an independent lot, these volunteer firefighters, and most departments experience a share of politics and drama, but our county has come to depend on them because we know we can. They also depend on each other, providing seamless mutual assistance from one emergency to the next.

There are now 15 volunteer fire departments in Panola County staffed by more than 250 volunteer firefighters. The decision by the State Fire Rating Bureau to revamp its rating system recognizes that these firefighters — and their counterparts in the state’s other 81 counties have truly come of age. We are relieved to see them when they arrive as first responders. Now we can also anticipate some relief to our wallets with savings on fire insurance premiums.

Dedicated volunteer firefighters make this possible, and we appreciate them for all that they do.
(An ironic footnote to this saga: Catherine Pattridge was among family members who escaped with little more than clothes on their backs from that inferno that consumed Barnacre Lodge on that Christmas morning over 54 years ago. She would become the mother of Daniel Cole, Panola’s EMA Director whose duties include county fire coordinator.)