Twenty-six new firefighters -- the largest class ever to join the Bluffton Township Fire District -- arrived Tuesday to staff temporary stations in Palmetto Bluff and Colleton River Plantation.
Putting firefighters in the stations, which haven't been staffed until now, is expected to prevent a steep hike in insurance rates paid by residents in the communities.
Two years ago, the Insurance Services Organization downgraded the fire-protection rating for the two gated communities. Although a fire engine was stored in both communities, the ISO concluded the gated communities were more than five miles away from a manned station. That resulted in a Class 10 rating, the lowest, which caused most homeowners' insurance premiums to rise -- some by more than $10,000 a year.
To tamp back the increase, fire officials and Beaufort County Council crafted a $554,000 plan to build and staff stations in both neighborhoods.
A hiring drive was launched. The 26 new employees were chosen from among more than 350 applicants, after passing written and physical tests and acing interviews, Battalion Chief of Training Rick Kramer said.
About half of the final pool comes from the area.
Mike Notartomaso, a Hilton Head Island resident who has already earned the nickname "Goose" for his resemblance to the character in the movie "Top Gun," said he had been waiting for the chance to serve.
"It's a lifelong dream," said Notartomaso, 27. "I found a paper from my first-grade class that asked what you wanted to be when you grow up, and I wrote that I wanted to be a firefighter."
Last week, he and the rest of the class began orientation at the fire district to prepare for 14 weeks at the S.C. Fire Academy and emergency management technician training. Kramer and other training officers are teaching the recruits some of what they'll need to know, including drills to get in full fire-fighting gear and to hook up their oxygen tanks in less than a minute.
Kramer said the orientation has military attributes, including sit-ups and other exercises for punishment and a flag ceremony at the end of each day to retire the colors for the evening.
The class has been divided into the companies that will go through the Fire Academy, which plans a special session just for Bluffton firefighters.
Kramer and Notartomaso agreed many of the recruits have already forged tight bonds. The class is "pumped and ready to go," Notartomaso said.
"They've been preparing us for (the academy), telling us all about it, so we're kind of on edge just to get in and start doing it," he added.
When the recruits return, most will be assigned shifts in Palmetto Bluff and Colleton River, where stations will be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Until then, 12 firefighters are providing the same coverage. The neighborhoods will provide room and board for the firefighters, as discussions continue on building permanent stations in each gated community.
Turner said that as of Tuesday, the ISO rating in Colleton River has returned to a 3, and the reevaluation of Palmetto Bluff is underway.