Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify a statement by Scott Miller, chief of the Boling Springs Fire Department, about the future status of volunteers at local fire departments.
Spartanburg County Council is moving forward with plans to consolidate or merge some of the county’s independent fire departments.
To help with the process, county officials plan to hire a coordinator for county fire service.
County Council took the action during a meeting on Oct. 19. The actions come after the council received recommendations from a consulting firm to consolidate or merge some of the independent fire departments to provide better service in the county.
“We are at a point now where we need to take action and work with people who have a love of the fire service and tap into their knowledge with our authority and come up with solutions and we have to do it fast,” said County Councilman David Britt. “I am encouraged with what the current council can accomplish in the next three months to get the ball running with the chiefs and fire departments and come up with a solution.”
Emergency Services Consulting International, a consulting firm based in Virginia, has been working since March examining fire protection services countywide provided by fire departments operating in special purpose districts, fire service areas, and municipalities.
The firm presented recommendations to council on Oct. 12. Stuart McCutcheon, director of business intelligence for Emergency Services Consulting International, said the study found inconsistencies in several areas of fire protection service delivery in the fire districts including training, staffing, and levels of service.
In addition, he said millage rates across the county funding the fire departments’ needs vary from 3.3 mills to 45.9 mills. While most fire departments in urban areas have been able to adequately fund their departments some fire departments in rural areas have struggled to afford equipment and have any paid full-time staff relying mostly on volunteers.
The study recommended the county to evaluate consolidations or mergers on a case-by-case basis. This would help determine the impact on millage rates and annual revenues to support operations.
In 1990, there were 46 fire departments within Spartanburg County. The number of fire departments in the county in 2020 is down to 35 departments.
If the county didn’t consider consolidating departments, the study suggested establishing a county-wide fire department or leaving the services as they are now.
McCutcheon recommended the county pursue consolidation or merger of individual fire service areas to special purpose districts or municipalities to reduce the county’s liabilities in fire service protection and provide more uniform fire rescue services throughout the county.
The consolidation plan will require a multi-year process. Fire districts’ service boundaries may also be adjusted as part of the plan to improve service.
Over the next few months, the fire departments will be evaluating and assessing their finances, personnel and equipment as part of the planning.
Spartanburg County Councilman Bob Walker said he plans to meet with the fire departments in his district to see what the best options may be moving forward. Walker said there may be opportunities for consolidations or mergers with fire departments.
“My goal is to listen to everybody and talk about the survey,” Walker said. “What I am seeing is the survey was done to evaluate where we are as a county. There are a lot of answers out there and my point is it’s not going to happen right away.”
Consolidations or mergers of fire departments in the county isn’t a new topic. It’s been discussed for decades in some communities. The latest merger in the county was with the Trinity Fire Department, combining departments from Cross Anchor, Enoree, and Hobbysville The Woodruff Fire Department was later added to Trinity to help provide fire protection services to a rural area.
Several fire chiefs in the county said the Trinity model could be applied elsewhere to help improve service.
“I think the first question you have to ask anybody is do you want to maintain the status quo and not make changes,” said Scott Miller, chief of the Boling Springs Fire Department. “Some departments are doing well while some are struggling with manpower and equipment. So maintaining the status quo is not the solution. There is going to have to be some type of change and it’s on the county council’s shoulders to drive the agenda for change. Change is inevitable. It’s got to happen.”
Miller said he doesn’t expect shortages in fire department volunteers to get better over time, only worsen. A goal with the consolidations or mergers plan is to provide more paid staff at departments where it is needed most.
A fire department that could potentially benefit from consolidations or mergers is the Hilltop Fire Department.
“I am very thankful they stepped up and did the study,” Hilltop Fire Department Chief Donald Millis said ” It was a good time to do the study and it opened the eyes up for fire departments in the county. I think it sets goals toward consolidating and saving resources and shows a way to put more money into people to have more people on shifts. If we are able to combine departments and have more money to add people, I think it’s a great thing. I think mergers and consolidations need to happen.”
A majority of the fire departments already work together through automatic mutual aid agreements. When responding to calls, multiple fire departments often respond providing support in a fire service protection area. These types of calls provide additional manpower and equipment when needed.
Landrum Fire Department Chief Warren Ashmore said the independent study showed the county’s overall fire service could be improved.
“I think it was a very good study that highlighted and points out how we need to address training standards and look at communications,” Ashmore said. “We need to take a look at all these things and make them uniform and address it through strategic planning The landscape is different for rural and urban departments and we need to find something that works with all departments.”
For Una Fire Department Chief Jeff Hadden, any consolidation or merger plan needs to keep the taxpayers’ best interest in mind.
“I want to see the taxpayers taken care of,” Hadden said. “I am not against mergers but I don’t want to see taxes to go up and want us to have the same level of service we have now. If we lose our volunteers, it would not be beneficial.”
After receiving the recommendations, Spartanburg County Councilman Michael Brown said change is coming.
“What we have known for some time now is that we have a finite set of options to look at and doing nothing and maintaining the status quo from what I gathered nobody associated with the fire service wants the status quo to continue,” Brown said. “I think one option being looked at in a number of departments is to consolidate on their part and a merger of fire service areas into special purpose districts. How it looks and where we go that may take some time.”
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