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County council receives fire service report

Posted: September 12, 2018 4:03 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Kershaw County Council heard an update on the county’s fire service during its meeting Tuesday.

The report, put together after a lengthy study undertaken by an ad hoc committee appointed last year by Council Chair Julian Burns, confirms and categorically pinpoints what the county has generally known for some time  -- mainly, the fire service needs some help, and that help is going to cost money.

“What does not need to get lost in the discussion, however, is the ultimate benefit to taxpayers,” Councilman Ben Connell, who chaired the ad hoc committee, said, pointing out that investment in fire service improvements will ultimately improve ISO ratings, which ultimately means insurance premium decreases for homeowners and business owners.

The ad hoc committee first submitted its findings in an interim report to council in January 2018. Those findings included:

• a need for additional fire service personnel to be added at the Blaney Fire Station and in the eastern portion of the county;

• a need to implement an integrated reporting system across all stations to accurately gauge the number and types of calls and where to direct resources; and

• a need to find a new location for Blaney EMS when the fire service there expands.

Several short term solutions have already been implemented, County Administrator Vic Carpenter said. Most of these had to do with general reorganization, such as dividing the county into four sectors, reporting to the state fire academy as one service instead of a number of individual stations, re-titling fire marshal Keith Ray and deputy fire marshal Scott Wiles as chief and deputy chief of the fire service, re-titling fire station chiefs as captains with one or more lieutenants under them, implementing a standardized training schedule for the entire service to include fire academy courses,  purchasing emergency reporting software so as to accurately report service calls, restructuring the one percent money to one county budget, revising operating guidelines, and standardizing equipment.

“We’ve already seen significant success just with these changes,” Connell noted. “With the new software, for example, we are getting the data regarding calls that we need to help inform some of these decisions.”

That the area fire service -- Camden Fire Department, Lugoff Fire-Rescue and the county  -- do an outstanding job servicing the public, the bottom line is that the county will need to fund further improvements, Connell said.

“To put it in perspective, the Camden Fire Department has a $1.9 million budget and services a population of 7,030,” he said. “The Lugoff Fire Department has a $1.2 million budget and services a population of 8,000. Back out those numbers, and the county is servicing more than 50,000 on a budget of $1.1 million.”

The committee also generated several longer term conclusions and recommendations. First, the fire service, which has largely been all-volunteer, needs to move to a “hub and spoke” professional/volunteer hybrid system, Carpenter said. Initially, the recommendations call for two full-time and one part-time professional firefighter serving the Blaney/west side of the county and seven part-time professionals serving the east side of the county. More can be added later as growth warrants it.

Finally, the county should consider changing the point system to better reward the volunteer firefighters, Carpenter said.

How that works, he said, is that the county maintains a fund of $75,000 per year for volunteer firefighters. Currently, volunteer firefighters earn points for service calls to which they respond; the money from that fund is disbursed to the volunteers based on the number of points they earn.

Hand in hand with this is training. Currently, a volunteer must complete a minimum of 140 hours of training before that firefighter is allowed to respond to calls.  Also, under the present system, each volunteer earns the same number of points, no matter the level of training.

“What that means is there is little incentive to go beyond the minimum,” he said. “However, by moving to a tiered point system, where the more certifications and time one has, the more points they can potentially earn, we can offer some incentive for volunteers to seek further certifications and advanced training.”

Ultimately, the addition of full and part time positions is going to cost money and council will need to identify a revenue source to do this. One idea, proposed by Councilman Jimmy Jones, is to come up with solutions to place before the taxpayers via a referendum question. However, he acknowledged it is too late to do that in time for the November elections.

Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr. cautioned that staff needs to come up with solutions council is comfortable with, and that council needs to be committed to making those decisions.

“It’s all good to sit up here and talk, but when it comes time, we need to be willing to do what it takes,” he said.

Council ultimately agreed to have county staff generate several cost/funding source recommendations for council to consider; council will also continue the discussions when it starts budget discussions in 2019.

Other business discussed:

• Council unanimously passed second reading of a request to rezone a 3.74 acre parcel located at 2672 Ft. Jackson Rd from RD-2 (rural resource district) to GD (general development).

• Carpenter gave an update on preparations for Hurricane Florence, which could affect Kershaw County over the weekend with winds and heavy rains. He especially noted the county’s hurricane hotline telephone number, which citizens should call for any questions that are not emergency related. The number is (803) 425-7242.

“We want people to call if they need us, but we do not want people calling 911 for anything except an emergency,” he said. “A power outage, for example, is not an emergency -- they should call the hotline for something like that. Also, people need to understand that once the winds hit a sustained speed of 35 miles per hour, we will not send anyone out into the weather. No one will be out in the storm when that happens -- we all will have to just ride it out until conditions improve.”

Kershaw County Council meets next at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25 in the County Government Center, 515 Walnut St., Camden. Meetings are open to the public.

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