Talk with Brown County (Nashville) Fire Chief Dallas “Dak” Kelp about firefighting for just five minutes, and he’ll share one theme: saving lives and keeping his family — the fire department — safe.

On Oct. 16, the Nashville Town Council discussed a request from RealAmerica Development and Management for tax-increment financing district assistance for a 57-unit building for 55-and-older residents to be named Hawthorne Hills. At the meeting, Kelp raised concerns about the safety of his firefighters and the projected

80 residents of the building.

It would be the second RealAmerica apartment complex in Nashville. RealAmerica also built and manages Willow Manor, an apartment complex for 55-and-older similar in size to the proposed development. Hawthorne Hills would be built across Hawthorne Drive from Willow Manor.

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RealAmerica built and manages Forest Hills, a multifamily housing complex in Gnaw Bone.

Kelp is concerned that the new building will present similar problems to those he has found with Willow Manor.

At Willow Manor and Forest Hills, there are problems with reaching all sides of the buildings with a fire truck. At Willow Manor, firefighters have difficulty getting to the roof.

“At Willow Manor, we do have ground ladders that we can reach the third-story windows; we just can’t safely make the roof of the building,” Kelp said.

Kelp expressed hesitation to simply trust that there would be no similar problems with the new development. Hawthorne Hills is only in preliminary planning stages, said Jeff Ryan, a development associate with RealAmerica. There will be three stories, but that does not indicate what the roof will look like.

“We will not start doing the full design of the building until we’ve been awarded the rental housing tax credits that we’ve requested,” he said. “So, that won’t be until March of next year.”

The building requirements for the town and county limit commercial building height to 35 feet. The Nashville department’s longest ladder is

35 feet; although when angled against a building, it reaches approximately 32 feet, Kelp said.

However, the code measures building height midway between the peak and eaves of the roof, meaning that the actual highest point of the building could be substantially higher if the roof has a steep pitch and low eaves. An A-frame structure — with its eaves near ground level — could, technically, be almost double the intended height and still meet code, Kelp said.

Additionally, the code does not address surrounding terrain. Factor in a hill, and a building that is accessible to the department’s ladders on one side could have a floor completely out of reach on another.

Getting up there

The situation is further complicated by the lack of a ladder truck in the county. The nearest ladder trucks are in Bartholomew County and Bloomington, at least 20 to 30 minutes away, Kelp said.

All the departments in the county rely on extension ladders, not unlike those a homeowner may have for cleaning out gutters. The ladders lack the stability and mobility of a ladder truck, Kelp said. It takes four people to reposition the 35-foot ladders, and removing larger, incapacitated victims from a burning building requires side-by-side ladders and two firefighters working in tandem.

“It’s a lot safer for us, as firefighters, and the people we’re trying to rescue, to do that with an aerial device, rather than a ground ladder,” Kelp said.

Firefighters at risk

But reaching the highest window and getting people out is not the only problem.

When battling a blaze, firefighters need to vent the fire. To do this, they cut a hole in the roof directly over the fire.

The procedure not only helps to prevent the fire from spreading horizontally through the building — potentially saving the building itself — but allows smoke and heat to escape.

“It buys us time to get people out of there,” Kelp said.

The leading cause of death in a fire is smoke inhalation, and removing smoke and heat also means the firefighters are in less danger and can see better, Kelp said.

Without a ladder truck, the county’s firefighters have to climb onto the potentially weakened roof to cut the hole. They must reach the roof by an extension ladder — meaning the nearest edge of the roof can only be a little over 30 feet from the ground — and then place a roof ladder.

A roof ladder has two folding hooks on one end to catch the peak of the roof and hold the ladder in place. The roof ladders the Nashville department has are 14 feet long. If the distance from the roof’s peak to the point on the roof that the department’s extension ladders can reach exceeds 14 feet, a firefighter must essentially free-climb up the roof of the burning building to put the roof ladder in place.

Once the roof ladder is secure, a firefighter uses it as a base to stand on and slams a hooked bar into the roof nearby. The bar serves as a second foothold for the firefighter to balance on while cutting the vent hole with a specialized chain saw.

In contrast, the same procedure performed from a ladder truck reduces the risks. Most of all, the firefighters are not trusting their lives to the durability of a roof directly over the fire, Kelp said.

Long-term goals

Kelp admitted there is no quick fix to the problems. He said a new ladder truck would cost around $750,000.

The entire general fund budget for the town of Nashville for 2014 was around $882,000, according to the the Department of Local Government Finance’s website.

Town council President Bob Kirlin said he has looked into alternatives, such as grants, but has found nothing that would cover the cost.

“That’s part of long-term planning,” he said. “I’d love to have one, but I have no idea how we would finance it.”

The purchase would not be much easier even for the county as a whole. The entire 2014 general fund budget for Brown County was around $5.5 million.

Kirlin said that if a TIF were approved for Hawthorne Hills, a portion of the funds directed to the town’s Redevelopment Commission could be used to purchase firefighting equipment. However, the projected total return for the town after 25 years comes to just $250,000.

There is the possibility of purchasing a used ladder truck, Town Superintendent Roger Bush said. He said he has seen opportunities to purchase a truck from military surplus for as little as $25,000. However, when such opportunities arise, there may be as little as half an hour to act, he said.

Kelp said he is apprehensive about “inheriting someone else’s problems.” Most departments will hold on to a truck until they have run the life out of it, and he is concerned about the problems a used truck might present.

Additionally, a used truck would require a complete refurbishment, he said, which could add up to $200,000 to the price tag. Still, he has told Bush that if the opportunity comes to purchase a ladder truck for half or less of the price of a new ladder truck, he would endorse it, Kelp said.

Building for the future

Kelp said he would like to see local building codes revised to meet the needs of firefighters and to create greater public awareness of what those needs are.

Town Manager Scott Rudd said that he would be interested in looking at any elements of the building code that allow buildings to exceed the intended limits but that any major changes to the code would rest with the town council.

County Planning Commission Director David Woods said no one has presented the problem of building height and firefighting to him during his time as director. He said that, if ordinances need to be amended or created to deal with safety issues, the Area Plan Commission or Brown County Commissioners could do that.

“If it will help the fire department, we’ll look at it,” Kirlin said.

Kelp also said he would like for input from the fire department to be a requirement for new buildings, possibly even giving the fire chief discretion as to whether a development needed additional hydrants or other safety features.

Ryan said that RealAmerica would be willing to work with the fire department to address Kelp’s concerns during the planning process for Hawthorne Hills.

”We’ll be talking to him, the building department and everybody else who has input on it,” Ryan said. “All of our buildings have been built to code. So, our opinion is that the code is good, and we build to it and create safe properties.”

When Willow Manor and Forest Hills were being built, he gave recommendations to the developer, Kelp said. In the case of Willow Manor, many of them were addressed; at Forest Hills, almost none was addressed. Ultimately, any input from the fire department is only a suggestion and has no binding power, he said.

A local unit such as the town or county can create standards for fire safety that are either as restrictive as or more restrictive than the state fire code, Bush said.

However, a local ordinance would have to go through a review process at the state level, said John Erickson, director of public information for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and State Fire Marshal. The Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission has to approve the ordinance, he said.

“It’s risk assessment. How much risk is the public willing to accept by moving into those buildings?” Kelp said. “Or the local elected officials — how much risk are they willing to accept that nothing bad will ever happen?”

Pull Quote

“What we’ve done is we’ve adapted our tactics. We have to come up with different tactics to be able to fight fires in these buildings, and unfortunately, that usually means we’re on the inside. You really don’t want your people in there if they don’t have to be.

“Usually if we’re fighting from outside the building, it’s going to the ground. So, we’re not opposed to going inside, it just creates a lot more risk, and it’s much more manpower intensive (OSHA says you have to have a person on the outside for every person inside) than a surround-and-ground type of formation.”

Dak Kelp, Nashville fire chief

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.