- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 24, 2015

LUMBERTON, Miss. (AP) - A self-proclaimed lifelong Lamar County resident, Mike Watts has spent more than two decades helping protect his neighbors’ homes and properties from fire.

Now, he will turn his attention to helping rebuild the Lumberton Volunteer Fire Department to do the same.

“My main goal is to get the recruitment back up, and the county is doing a lot of improvements to the station,” said Watts, who became Lumberton Volunteer Fire Department chief earlier this month.

“Other than that, I want to go out and meet and greet, try to get a good face on the fire department down there and let people meet us.”

Watts’ hiring has been part of a process that began in April, when the Board of Supervisors voted to assume administrative control of the fire department.

“There’s a problem with the rescue and the fire service,” Supervisor Warren Byrd said at the time. “The response time is not there and the responders are not there. I’m just trying to bring more stability and more accountability to that area. The people deserve the protection.”

County road crews are clearing trees and running a road at the back of fire station to modify the station’s three entrance bays.

“It’ll be a lot safer than backing up on a residential street, when you have got kids there and whatnot,” Lamar County Fire Coordinator George Stevens said. “You can see where there were (prior) accidents, with people backing into the building. We’re getting new doors, and coming in the back, it’ll be a lot safer. It’ll eliminate the backing in all together.”

Recently, the fire department signed over the title to its trucks, one of the last steps in the county’s takeover.

“You’ve got to have that legal authority, so we wanted to make sure we have absolute legal authority before we got involved in operations,” Stevens said.

With administrative control, the county would collect and distribute the 2 mills assessment for fire protection for those living in the Lumberton district. It also would decide how the district’s state insurance rebates would be managed and used.

Under the county umbrella, the Lumberton department would be able to benefit from Lamar County’s credit and purchasing ability.

Stevens said he was pricing electric bay doors and that work also has started on redoing old metal work that has rusted and rotted.

Ditches and vegetation have been cleared around the 3-acre site, and Stevens said the county purchased a $4,000 washer/extractor to clean turnouts.

“I think when they see some activity down there, they’re going to want to be involved,” said Watts, who put in 13 years with the Biloxi Fire Department before spending the past two as the paid-by-the-county, on-site firefighter with Southeast Volunteer Fire Department.

“There’s some good people in Lumberton. We’ve just got to get them, and get them back involved. Some of ‘em, they have sort of have had a bad taste in their mouth. But we’re going to get them back and do what we can.”

In the past, the Lumberton department’s relationship with the county had become a casualty of the town’s roiling political cauldron. Politics and personalities had seen the department’s volunteer rolls dwindle to less than half of what should be carried.

Stevens said Lumberton is not alone in its plight, which not only affects other departments in the county but volunteer fire units across the country.

But the low numbers hampered response times and what the department was able to do.

“It’s going to take a while, but we can get there,” Stevens said. “They’ve got good support around them. Southeast, Rock Hill, Pine Ridge, Beaver Lake and Southwest, they’ll all send people when there’s a house fire. That’s automatic. So, it’s not that we don’t have enough people at house fires, but we just maybe need to get there quicker at times and having a few more (people) would be good, too, for that.

Lumberton still retains a Class 8 rating, comparable to many other volunteer fire departments in the county.

“It’s not desperate straits,” Stevens said. “It’s just about getting things a little bit better.”

Stevens said the department has a still-serviceable pumper and tanker, but could use an “attack” truck similar to what Beaver Lake department added a few years ago.

He said Watts will be working with the City of Lumberton to check the hydrants located in the city proper.

“If we get to the point that we’re confident with where the hydrants are, we don’t really need a tanker in the city,” Stevens said.

Watts, who is a state-certified fire trainer, said he has high expectations for Lumberton.

And the better Lumberton department is, the better it will be not only for city residents but for the residents of south Lamar County as well, he said.

“The less resources we have to pull from our other fire departments to help Lumberton, the better it’s going to be,” Stevens said. “The more resources Lumberton has to help Lamar County, the better it’s going to be. When they get their staffing up and their equipment up, it’s going to be great.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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