Firefighters, city at odds over locked hydrant

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   A city fire hydrant used by both city and county firefighters has been placed under lock and key, threatening the mutual-aid spirit of cooperation forged by paid and volunteer firemen, and potentially placing two county businesses at risk in the event of a large fire.
   Brad Moffitt, financial director for the City of Elizabethton, said it was his decision to put a lock on the hydrant in front of Carter County Rescue Squad's Station 1 located on Iodent Way.
   "We've been having some people opening the hydrant illegally and taking water out of it, and we were trying to stop the water loss there," Moffitt said.
   The lock will stay in place, he said, until the problem is corrected. "If it takes indefinitely to get it corrected, then it would be indefinite."
   Moffitt said trucks had been observed loading water to fill swimming pools. "If it were only used for official use, then there would be no lock going on it. On occasion there have been county fire department trucks, and on occasion there have been other trucks."
   The fill-ups are at the expense of Elizabethton's water customers, he said. "It's regrettable that we have to put that on there to stop that sort of thing, because we would like to have them open so that any county [fire department] could be able to drive up there and use them if they have a fire and an emergency.
   "But when they're not being used in an emergency and they're being filled up, and we get word that they're going to a swimming pool to fill it up, we don't feel that the Elizabethton water customers should be paying for that," Moffitt said.
   Elizabethton Fire Chief Mike Shouse said the lock was placed on the hydrant Monday against his wishes and orders and against the orders of City Manager Charles Stahl. Stahl was in Nashville and unavailable for comment.
   "We're not in agreement with it, and we don't like it. I'm going to do everything I can to get it taken off and it not be happening any more," Shouse said. "It's none of my doings and I've discussed it with the city manager, and he says it's not going to be there either. But they went up there today and put it on there."
   Shouse said it takes a special wrench to open the hydrant's lock. "To my understanding each one of those wrenches are $125, and right now, they've just given us one."
   David Nichols, president of the Carter County Fire Association, said he believes the hydrant dispute began about four months ago. "Elk Mills Volunteer Fire Department had a bunch of work done on their big tanker to make it more user-friendly. It was fixed inside the city of Elizabethton by someone who holds a city business license instead of being taken away from here," he said.
   After work on the tanker was completed, Elk Mills "came up here in front of the squad building, because this hydrant is pretty easy to get to, and they filled it back up.
   "While they were doing that, a city water department employee came by and talked with them. After that, it's went downhill. The last word that we heard was we were supposed to tell Chief Shouse if we got any water out of this fire hydrant so that the city would know."
   The problem with having a lock on this specific hydrant, he said, is that it is the hydrant used to fight a fire at PSG's maintenance complex and A1 Auto Care, both of which are protected by Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department. "But we don't have a key to this hydrant, so instead of being on a hydrant, we're back to a tanker shuttle" in the event of a major fire, Nichols said.
   "The city fire department and the county fire departments are trying to forge a working environment that doesn't exist anywhere in the United States of America between a volunteer and a paid fire department. And we've done that.
   Nichols said he doesn't hold anything against the EFD, but pointed out that labor and expenses incurred by volunteer fire departments all over East Tennessee during the 2000 fire at North American Rayon, for which the volunteer departments were not reimbursed, "should more than pay for any water we ever use. In my opinion, this is throwing a huge monkey wrench in the spirit of cooperation in Carter County."
   Nichols said it could also result in higher insurance costs for businesses and homeowners in that area of Stoney Creek.
   Elk Mills' tanker was modified so that it would work better at the scene of a large fire, Nichols said. "Who's going to have a large fire? The city of Elizabethton. The main purpose that truck was bought was for large fires. Elk Mills doesn't have anywhere to have a large fire. The city of Elizabethton does.
   "The spirit of cooperation between the city and county is coming through. Everyone talks about wanting to do metro government and wanting to work together, and wanting to make Carter County a better place. Right here is a prime example of why we're having trouble doing that," Nichols said.