Are more paid firefighters needed in Newberry County?

By Kevin Boozer

April 30, 2014

PROSPERITY — Rural municipalities face mounting challenges while providing fire coverage in daytime hours, according to volunteer firefighters from Prosperity.

The volunteers met last Thursday with Newberry County Administrator Wayne Adams, with representatives from the town of Prosperity and with representatives of Newberry County Council to explore options for increased paid firefighter coverage, particularly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Prosperity Mayor Derek Underwood said that in the past the town had the luxury of having volunteer firefighters who lived near the stations. Now many of the volunteers work in Columbia.

The changing demographic and issues with response time has Prosperity contemplating ways the town and county could partner to possibly add paid firefighter positions, at least during daytime hours.

Though the impact of added employees on the ISO rating in Prosperity was briefly discussed, the issue, according to Adams and those present at the meeting Thursday night, is really about providing responsible fire coverage.

Average call volume from the past five years would be used, in part, to determine which parts of the county, if any, would have paid firefighter service.

If new, paid firefighters were added, they could help with daytime response and ease the administrative burden of the paperwork the 11 different fire departments in the county currently have to complete with volunteers logging a lot of the administrative hours in addition to the recommended 250 hours of training each volunteer must receive yearly.

Volunteer firefighters said having employees work in the day time could free the volunteers up to do paperwork and community relations work. The volunteers said under such a system they also could devote more time and energy to education and training.

Robert Dennis with Prosperity Fire Department said he was confident volunteers would still respond as they were able in the daytime even if some paid firefighters were added.

However, one challenge would be finding ways to pay the salaries. In the city of Newberry, a Firefighters I and Firefighter II start in the $41,000 to $45,500 range, including benefits.

Each municipality can employ people for fire protection.

And possibilities were discussed, such as municipalities using fire fees to help pay for firefighters but Newberry County could not put in a new fire tax into an incorporated area like Prosperity, Whitmire or the city of Newberry.

Additional tax mils dedicated to fire protection could be an option at the county level, but no firm plans have been made about funding at this time.

Those present agreed the matter needed to be discussed in a public forum so more people could have input.

Though no date has been set yet, consensus was for another meeting in a public setting among fire board members, fire chiefs and others to share information about any proposed changes to firefighters’ compensation and potentially adding positions.

In the meantime, Tommy Long, Newberry County Emergency Management director, said he would discuss the issue with the fire board and at the recommendation of County Councilman Kirksey Koon said the county’s 11 fire chiefs also will be consulted.

Long said the fire board appeared to be in favor of exploring the most feasible ways that Newberry County potentially could follow a statewide trend of paid daytime firefighters becoming the norm rather than totally relying upon volunteers.

“Paid daytime firefighters are (pretty much) an inevitability,” Adams said, and he commended those involved for taking a proactive approach to assess the needs, situation and resources in the county.

Adams said the issue will be an agenda item for the Newberry County Public Safety Commission to discuss on May 5.