Editorial: The Future Of The Fire Service

A Dillon County Council Public Safety committee meeting was held with the fire chiefs of the Dillon County Fire Stations, with the exception of Dillon County Station Four (Gaddy’s Mill) who did not send a representative, to discuss the budget needs for the upcoming year. The meeting quickly became a discussion not just of the coming budget year, but of the future and the very survival of the fire service in Dillon County.
It’s no secret that Dillon County is struggling through some tough financial times right now. All county offices are being called upon to cut back, and the fire department is no exception to this.
It is very unlikely that there will be any major changes to the proposed budget or to the funding for the fire service this year, but this meeting brought to light the needs of the fire departments for years and the great need for change if our departments are to continue to survive. The equipment at all fire departments is lacking. Our firefighters are doing a great deal with very little. They keep worn out fire trucks in a state of good repair but newer ones are needed, use the equipment they have without making many upgrades, and do their best to stretch their dollars to keep their operations going to save the lives and property of Dillon County citizens to tbe best of their ability.
While there is some paid staff, the fire departments rely mostly on volunteers. These volunteers are called upon at all times of day and night to fight fires. It takes a very dedicated person to become a firefigher. It takes more than just signing up. Volunteers have to go through extensive training to be able to serve on the fire departments, and many are lost when they find out they have to undergo the training. Young people are not being attracted to join the fire service because they aren’t seeing the bright, shiny fire trucks, the gear, or the things that initially attract someone to inquiring about becoming a volunteer. Due to the fact that this is a mostly volunteer operation and many volunteers work, there are times when firefighters show up to fight a fire and only have two or three people on scene.
There were many more issues that came out, and we will be taking up some of those in future issues, but here is what we see right now:
1) While it is understandable that nothing can be done in this year’s budget, there needs to be planning for the future. Each fire department’s budget and their activity needs to be re-examined. Budgets should be set based on activity of each department such as the number of calls typically answered, location, etc. This may require some budgets being slashed and others increased based on what is needed for that area. While having 24-hour departments all over the county would be great, it is not realistic at this time in Dillon County. It needs to be determined where 24-hour departments are actually needed, and resources and budgets adjusted to make this happen. The county needs to look at making provisions in their budget in the future to buy things such as new equipment, new trucks, etc.
2) A need for a unified fire system has arrived. A countywide fire system under a county fire chief has been discussed for many years now. Now is the time to start working towards the goal of a unified fire service under a professional fire chief, not from this county, but who has been a part of a professional service in the past and who can implement a professional operation without political influence in this county. This would also make it easier when applying for grants as the department would be whole and not small individual departments applying for funding. Obtaining more grants will help relieve some of the funding issues on the departments.
3) There is a need for a five year and ten year plan with goals and what needs to be achieved. This could be done through the fire chiefs along with public officials who regularly meet. There needs to be goals with measurable achievement and follow-up to make sure that goals are being accomplished.
4) There needs to be more outreach to get volunteers and more commitment from the county to help fire departments retain them. If equipment is needed to take the classes, it needs to be provided. If events are needed to attract volunteers, the county should assist in paying for these events. Also, standards should not be relaxed to get more volunteers. It is essential that volunteers meet the standards that are needed to become firemen or this could become a safety issue for them and others.
5) Also if the fire departments don’t have enough people responding to calls, the county needs to immediately return to the three-station response on structure fires. This is not just an issue of saving life and property, it is a safety issue for the firemen.
There are many more things that could be said and many more things that need to be addressed, but these are just a few of the things that stood out. If some of these situations are not addressed, we will begin to lose firemen who already feel overburdened and the fire service will not grow as it needs to and may result in greater expense for the taxpayers if a total paid service had to be implemented. Their needs must be taken seriously, and their dedication should be rewarded not ignored or pushed aside. The future of the fire service is at stake.