Firefighters say county needs to do more
Written by Jerry E. Halmon   

In an effort to make the community more aware of the difficult job the men and women of the Bamberg County Fire Services face in serving the public and the obstacles that challenge them on a daily basis, The Advertizer-Herald conducted a series of interviews with each of the county’s fire department’s fire chiefs (that would submit to an interview). The firefighters are proud of the job they do and the significantly lower ISO rating (6) the county recently received. The Firefighters do much more than fight fires and are grateful to County Fire Coordinator Brenna Hancock, whom they refer to as their “voice” for the job she is doing. The firefighters feel Bamberg County needs to do more financially and incentive wise to assist them in doing their jobs.

Scott Brown, Clear Pond Fire Department Chief, leads a department of 16 volunteer firefighters. The department’s newest piece of equipment is a 2008 E-1 pumper truck with a 1250 tank and 1250 pumper. The department is also expected to take delivery of a 2013 Kenworth 3000 gallon tanker by the end of the year thanks to grants written. In fact, Brown pointed out the example of the 1985 tanker with 176,000 miles the department would still be using if not for grants written by Fire Coordinator Brenna Hancock and others.

Brown noted if it were not for other counties donating equipment to his department, “we would be hurting.” He cites the over $30,000 in air packs and extrication equipment donated to the Clear Pond Fire Department by Colleton County. “Its kind a shame that other counties are able to donate equipment to us and we can’t afford to buy any,” Brown said.

Brown cites the lower ISO rating in the county as an accomplishment and the department has been able to add on to its present building over the years. When asked how the department is being supported by the county Brown replied “poorly,” adding, to be fair “they (county council) have supported us in ways.” For example by matching funds for equipment the department bought. “In my opinion they could do a whole lot more for this county. We’re not getting the support we need from county council.” Brown noted that his department, which receives $12,000 annually to operate off, is operating under the same budget it has since 2000.

And with his department, like the other departments in the county responding to fires, storms, cutting trees out of highways, assisting EMS with lifting assistance and responding to wrecks; “We do a lot for the little bit of funding we get. And, they talk about holding our check. We can’t survive if they do that.”

Brown stated at the present time he sees the 911 Emergency Services Office as being “poorly run” because of what he sees as a “communication gap.” “It could be run a whole lot better. We don’t get informed of things like we should.” Brown cites the FCC requirement of Narrow Banding of radios in 2013 as an example. While some fire departments in the county got new radios, his department did not. And at a cost of $900 to $1,000 each he does not see how his department can afford new radios.

“I don’t know why-hadn’t been told why-don’t know if they are still working on getting more radios, but that’s money we really can’t afford come 2013,” Brown said. “It scares me, it really does, we definitely need the increase,” Brown said.

Ehrhardt Fire Chief Chad Dilling, who heads a department of 20 volunteer firefighters, stated his department’s newest piece of equipment was a 2,000 gallon, 2010 tanker that belongs to the Town of Ehrhardt, which was bought with a federal grant. The department also purchased a “jaws of life” unit three years ago. He noted that “the old worn out stuff” in his department belongs to the County of Bamberg, while the newest equipment is owned by the town of Ehrhardt.

Dilling noted that getting a lower ISO rating has been his “main goal” since he became Public Safety Chief along with getting police officers and firefighters crossed-trained to Firefighter 1 status. He said “for years” citizens have paid a fire tax, but he didn't see where the money for fire protection has gone throughout that time. “Where is the money,” asked Dilling and adding, that it’s unfortunate citizens in the Holman’s Bridge and Rivers Bridge area have to “suffer” with an ISO rating of 9 or 10 for lack of a “simple substation” while the rest of the County gets a 6 rating. The Town of Ehrhardt's ISO rating is class 5.

Dilling noted the 911 Emergency Services Director Sharon Hammond has helped the department “greatly” in its disaster preparedness effort by supplying Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). And the Ehrhardt Fire Department has helped the 911 Emergency Services Office by putting up street signs.

“We all have to work together to help our people,” Dilling said. “I’m not going to bash anybody. We all have a tough job to do. We’re going to help our people in our area if they call us-we will respond.”

Timmie Taylor, City of Bamberg Fire Chief heads a department of 23 firefighters which includes three paid engineers and two trainees. The department is also proud of its new trainee Michael Fisher, who will complete 1152 class this year. As for new equipment, the department received a new cascade system for a service truck last year. Taylor made mention that unlike many of the fire departments in the county that depend on the county for equipment, “luckily” the Bamberg Fire Department has no equipment that belongs to the county and everything is owned by the city of Bamberg. Taylor thanked the city of Bamberg for their support over the years he has been fire chief.

Taylor cited the over $2.8 million dollars in grants the departments have received over the last several years in grants under the tenure of Brenna Hancock as county fire coordinator has played a big part as to where Bamberg County is now. “Brenna (Hancock) has really helped us a lot,” Taylor said. “We don’t need to go back.” Taylor also thanked Bamberg County 911 Emergency Services Director Sharon Hammond for the job she has done in writing grants for equipment and hand held, station and truck radios. “She (Hammond) has worked with us and we with her. She has supported us very well, with classes for storm readiness.”

Taylor also points to the Level 4 ISO rating in the city of Bamberg as an accomplishment to be proud of. When asked about the level of support the fire departments in the county receive from the county, Taylor replied “the county has let us down big time.” He noted that County Fire Coordinator Brenna Hancock and the fire departments have worked “diligently” to get the ISO rating down to a level 6 in most areas of the county, “which lowers most of the people in the county insurance a good bit.” “They’re cutting back on our budget. Things that we need to continue our service to the community,” he said. Taylor noted his department has not received an increase in its funding in six years. “Things are going up and we’re going down, we can’t continue to operate that way.”

On the matter of 911 signs in citizens yards, Taylor noted he didn’t expect the law enforcement agencies to act as 'sign police' but his department would report missing signs when they respond to a fire calls.

For matters of transparency, Taylor has asked the county for a financial statement to know where “we stand next year.” “Until we get a financial statement, we don’t know where we stand. They told us they didn’t have the money. The county is broke. Everybody is paying taxes, we need accountability where the money is going.”

Hunters Chapel Fire Chief Richard Rentz leads a department of 14 volunteer firefighters. Rentz, said the Hunters Chapel Fire Department is the only department in the county with more than one station. Along with the main station in Hunters Chapel, the department has a substation in Edisto, “Which saves the county a considerable amount of money by having more than one station."

In the area of equipment, his department has received a new 2009 pumper, a 2004 tanker and a 2007 unit. The department has also been the recipient of extrication equipment from Colleton County. And the department’s water shuttle equipment is “as good as any in the county.” The Hunters Chapel Fire Department also includes first responders that assist EMS and is proud to have trainee Jessica Moore, their first female member in a while. Rentz, also notes as an accomplishment the lower ISO rating of level 6 in the county. He stated the lowered ISO rating has “been in the making” for 20-years and required thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Rentz said he is “grateful” to County Fire Coordinator Brenna Hancock, who department members referred to as “an unsung hero” for the good things she has done in writing grants and handling other aspects of her job. Rentz also recognized Jeff Jowers and Jim Pruett, who preceded Hancock, for the job they did in working with the members of the fire service.

While Rentz noted he wasn’t going to say “a lot against the county," he did state the firefighters did feel “neglected a little.” He said his department was operating under the same budget it did in 2000 and the firefighters needed some type of incentive program. “It’s like they don’t know if they are alive.” Rentz said firefighters will not be given free physicals this year, a program that was credited last year with identifying pre-existing conditions several firefighters had which could’ve caused serious problems. Rentz stated a banquet once per year or tax break if a firefighter qualified would go a long way in showing the firefighters they were appreciated.

As for the 911 Emergency Services Office, Rentz noted, the department “has its issues,” but “it is better than it used to be.” As for emergency road signs in citizens yards; the firefighters called it “old news,” but he is glad the ordinance that has been on the books since 1996 is finally being enforced. Rentz said his department has sent in names over the years and “not much has been done,” but the firefighters are stating the signs need to be in people’s yards and not on their mail boxes and the signs do “mean a lot in assisting EMS locate people in an emergency."

Rentz stressed that firefighters do so much more than fight fires. They work during storms, setup landing zones, search for missing persons and much more and for the budget to be the same since 1997 --$250,000 per year for all the departments, the departments need an incentive.

Mac Clayton is fire chief of the Colston Volunteer Fire Department, which has seen its membership double in size and presently has 16 members and includes two-first responders. The department has a 2000 model tanker that belongs to the Colston Fire Department and a 1985 pumper that is owned by Bamberg County. The department was the recipient of a grant that went to the purchase of new bunker gear. Along with the increase in membership, Clayton points to the lower ISO rating of level 6, in the county for residents within five road miles of a fire station as a major accomplishment.

When asked about the level of support his department receives from the county, Clayton said he “was not throwing any bricks at anybody.” But in his opinion, “the county hasn’t supported the fire service as well as it could have.” “Council doesn’t know what we do,” he said. He noted the fire service runs interference for forestry, removes trees from the road and assists EMS just to name a few of the many jobs they do.

Clayton points to the job that County Fire Coordinator Brenna Hancock has done in getting the fire service in the County to where it is now: “She has done an excellent job,” Clayton said, adding “we wouldn’t be where we are without Brenna (Hancock). She has done an outstanding job, we wouldn’t have the rating (ISO 6) we have and the grants without her.”

Clayton says he sees the management of the 911 Emergency Services Office as “lacking,” adding that, “they really haven’t been cooperative."

Clayton also noted that the Colston Fire Department, which established the Clear Pond Fire Department before Clear Pond went on its own has been “very conservative” in his finances since he became chief and is “financially secure.”