It's taken 30 years, but members of Hamilton County's Special Tactics and Rescue Services team finally have a place to hang their helmets -- along with their flippers, scuba tanks, night vision goggles and snake chaps.
"We've been in business since February 1983, and this is our first station," Chief Clay Ingle said as he stood in the vehicle bay of the team's new building at 9022 Career Lane in Harrison.
The STARS team's 37 volunteers are who public safety agencies call when someone is lost in the woods, stranded on a mountain side, missing in a river or trapped in a flooded area. Sometimes, they search for days in all weather conditions until the search is complete.
Members are mostly trained emergency medical technicians, firefighters or paramedics who offer their time when their standard workday is done, Ingle said.
"Our main job is wilderness search and rescue, and we do swiftwater flood rescue," Ingle said. "We're a family, and we respond to help families. That's what we're here for," Ingle said.
Ingle said the team averages about 36 emergency calls per year and provides medical transport assistance for 24 community events annually.
The team responds to calls from local authorities but also from state and federal agencies, Ingle said. It covers Homeland Security District 3, which includes Bledsoe, Bradley, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
Hamilton County commissioners voted last week to offer the rescue squad a home at the former Emergency Medical Services Station No. 1 off Highway 58. Ingle said the team will make full use of the building -- and the one-acre lot on which it sits.
Before the building, many of the team's response vehicles were kept at three different members' homes. That's going to change. Now, the main command truck, a swift water rescue boat and other vehicles will be housed at the station.
"Everything is going to be kind of centrally located and more secure," Ingle said.
Most all training is done in-house, but the new station also affords an opportunity to bring in more trainers from outside agencies, Ingle said.
"That's one of the great things about this building. We have one place to come do our training," he said.
The team has a lot work to do at its new home. But by Tuesday, most of the walls had been painted, and the floors were nearly cleaned and waxed. Ingle said a shower will be transformed into a diving equipment cleaning area, and some landscaping needs to be done.
Aside from providing the team a place to store its equipment, the building offers a big boost for morale.
"We're going to be able to cook our own meals for meetings and that's good for fellowship. That's the big thing is just having a home base," Ingle said.
But the building also brings expenses the team has never factored into its shoestring $14,700 budget, which is funded by the Hamilton County government.
"We'll have bills now. So we'll have to look at picking up fundraising," Ingle said. "We're pennywise. We needed more swift water stuff, so we planned almost four years of budgeting. ... We can put 15 people in the water right now today," Ingle said.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the building was selected for its proximity to a major highway and because it had already been used for emergency response.
Coppinger called the rescue team and other volunteer emergency services "the best bargain taxpayers get in the county and said he was glad the building came available.
"I would just applaud these individuals who give of their time, and put their lives on the line. They do the training, and the majority of the purchasing of the equipment is done by them individually. And all of us as taxpayers should be grateful for their commitment," Coppinger said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at email@example.com.