Orange Grove Fire Station #2 is open! It took four months to build and cost about $90,000. It’s a simple fire station that will restore fire insurance for hundreds of families in Orange Grove’s Fire District. Orange Grove — and the other rural fire departments — is also working to improve their insurance rating (ISO rating) which will lower homeowner insurance premiums by as much as 25 to 30%. This story has a happy ending — unlike the continuing saga to find a solution for families south of Chapel Hill who lost their insurance coverage.

This all started when the NC Department of Insurance (DOI) started to allow insurers to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) when rating homeowner insurance policies. Now insurers can accurately measure the distance from the home to the fire department. If your home is over 6 road miles from your primary fire station, your home is considered “uncovered.” That means you’ll pay an outrageously high premium or possibly not be insured at all.

Insurers only recognize your primary fire department,  so it doesn’t count if you live at the edge of the fire district and close to fire station in a neighboring district. Since Orange County works in a mutual aid system where three fire stations are dispatched for every fire, the neighboring fire department will be dispatched — along with your primary fire department and one other. Insurers are not required to factor mutual aid into their rating models. 

The issue is complicated by differences between town and county fire departments. The towns have paid, full-time fire departments. County residents rely on paid fire fighters supported by a network of dedicated volunteers who undergo extensive training and are available at a moment’s notice.  The county terrain is different: less density, homes tucked away at the end of long and narrow gravel roads, and no fire hydrants. So rural firefighters have elaborate systems to quickly haul water to the scene.

The real issues are political. Initially, the neighbors approached the county government to address the problem — and the county failed to tell them to contact their local fire department.  The county’s eight rural fire departments are owned and operated by the communities — and funded by a separate fire tax which is set by the fire department.  When the community came to me for help, I referred them to Chief Tommy Holmes who met with them a week later.

Before they decided to build the new fire station, Orange Grove leaders approached Carrboro to modify their insurance district boundary to include residents in the eastern end of Orange Grove’s district. These arrangements are becoming commonplace among the rural fire departments (since they already operate under mutual aid, it doesn’t impact cost or service). Carrboro was unwilling to change the insurance lines without also changing the tax districts. The same issue is occurring in communities south of Chapel Hill.

So Orange Grove leaders decided to build a simple, 2-bay fire station. The station cost less than $60,000 to build, and Orange Grove equipped it with two used fire trucks. Maple View Farm donated the land, and many professionals offered services at little or no charge.

Orange Grove shared their plan with the community before they applied for a permit. So many people showed up for the meeting, that Orange Grove leaders held a second meeting with homeowners who lived near the proposed building. They wanted to assure neighbors that the building would be minimally invasive — no sirens and just a small light over the doorway. The community chose the color and landscaping.

For me, this project says everything about rural Orange County. It’s not just Orange Grove’s long standing commitment to service; it’s the respect that Orange Grove leaders — and all our rural fire departments — show for the community, people who just happen to be their neighbors.

Thanks to Chief Holmes and President Bill Waddell, Orange Grove’s story has a happy ending. Eno and Caldwell Fire departments solved a similar problem with a simple contract.  Communities south of Chapel Hill are still in limbo — stuck in discussions about taxes and annexations. Without cooperation, the solutions are likely to become expensive.