Study Renews Interest in South Carolina Fire Department Mergers

Months after a study recommended consolidating and merging independent fire departments, work has started to determine the best ways to improve service and streamline costs in Spartanburg County.

Improving services and streamlining costs
in Spartanburg County

Chris Lavender, Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C.


Apr. 16–Months after a study recommended consolidating and merging independent fire departments, work has started to determine the best ways to improve service and streamline costs in Spartanburg County.

A Fire Prevention and Protection Advisory Committee is coming up with a set of criteria for making changes ranging from millage rates to looking at equipment as well as consolidation. The committee also has submitted plans to help county officials to hire a coordinator for county fire service.

Though the discussion about merging or consolidating fire departments isn’t a new issue, fire chiefs say the recommendation has sparked new interest among departments.

“We have got several departments in this county that are talking and met with me or contacted me about merging and consolidating,” said Duncan Fire Chief Barry Frost, who chairs the Fire Prevention and Protection Advisory Committee.

Frost said even before the county hired the Emergency Services Consulting International to take a look at fire service and come up with recommendations, local fire departments knew they had issues. The Virginia-based consulting firm presented its recommendations last October.

“A lot of fire chiefs are realizing that the numbers they used to have coming back from fires is not there and we don’t need to wait 20 years before we try and fix this problem,” he said.

The study found inconsistencies in the fire districts including training, staffing, and levels of service.

In addition, the millage rates across the county funding the fire departments vary from 3.3 mills to 45.9 mills. Fire departments in urban areas have been able to adequately fund their departments while some fire departments in rural areas have struggled to afford equipment and have any paid full-time staff relying mostly on volunteers.

“At the end of the day, if you merge departments that both have different millage rates what is that new millage rate going to be,” Frost said. “It may go up for some people and may go down for some other people but if you are going to have a millage rate increase on any citizen of Spartanburg County, you need to justify why you are doing that and the purpose of what that increase is going for. We see in the study we are lacking firefighters in this county, boots on the ground, to help put fires out because the volunteer base is dying and people are not doing it anymore. To offset that, we are looking at mergers and consolidation.”

The fire departments and county officials say they can’t make all of these changes without some help. That is why they are working to hire a coordinator for county fire service.

“We have submitted a draft plan this week to administration on what the duties and responsibilities of that person should be,” Frost said. “The hiring is up to the county administration and if they do so it will be part of their budget process. They ( fire coordinator) would look into issues that we don’t have time to do on a full-time basis and have the oversight to see this (merger or consolidations) through.”

Frost said the advisory board will establish a timeline to implement goals and objectives for fire departments and develop a plan on which departments might benefit from mergers or consolidations. He said there haven’t been any fire departments identified yet through the study evaluation process for merger or consolidation.

“We have to make sure with a merger that we don’t create more headaches,” Frost said.

Frost said any merger or consolidation plan would need final approval from Spartanburg County Council. The advisory committee plans to present its findings and recommendations to council by the end of the year.

“When looking at merging and consolidation you aren’t going to make everyone happy at the end of the day,” Frost said. “People are concerned about jobs. You aren’t going to lose paid positions. The problem is we don’t have enough paid firefighters.”

Some fire departments continue to have difficulty having enough volunteers to answer fire calls, especially in northern and southern Spartanburg County. Frost said some fire districts in rural areas of the county with limited revenues due to lower assessed property values can’t generate enough funds through taxes to help pay for services. He hopes, if approved, mergers or consolidations might help stabilize millage rates to help fire departments fund protection more adequately.

The consolidation and merger plan would require a multi-year process. Fire districts’ service boundaries may also be adjusted as part of the plan to improve service.

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.

Hilltop Fire Department Chief Donald Millis supports the recommendation to merge or consolidate fire departments.

“I am all for it,” Millis said. “I think it’s a great thing and thankful they are allowing the process to move forward but we want it done right the first time so we don’t have to come back to this. I think it would be a benefit and as long as it benefits residents I am happy.”

Millis said consolidation would help departments share resources and manpower while saving money on training and equipment. He’s concerned though that if the plan moves forward some long-serving fire chiefs may be reassigned through the process.

“Some fire chiefs have spent a lot of time and money building their departments,” Millis said. “Talking about consolidation, they may have to join other departments and work with other departments. You could have some hurt feelings with some chiefs moved around and put in other roles.”

Hilltop has a combined staff of 35 firefighters, including volunteers and paid positions. The fired department responded to 140 structure fires last year.

Millis said the study shed light on what improvements are needed in the county’s fire departments, including the need to improve response times in some areas.

“It showed us stuff we needed to work on and opened our eyes up to what we needed to be doing,” Millis said. “Our response times have gotten better. I never paid enough attention to it until this happened (the study’s results).”

Mills said his department’s response times were between five to six minutes but the department has reduced its response time between four to five minutes.

“Some of the ways we reduced time is we were able to move bunk rooms from upstairs to downstairs closer to the apparatus,” Millis said. “Put the guys downstairs so they wouldn’t have to deal with steps.”

Response times were also reduced by providing firefighters additional training on computer-aided design and drafting technology to get them more familiar with where streets and hydrants are located, Millis said.

Consolidations will be recommended on a case-by-case basis. In 1990, there were 46 fire departments within Spartanburg County. The number of fire departments in the county last year was down to 35.

Una Community Fire Department Chief Jeff Hadden said while mergers or consolidations would likely provide more paid firefighters, he speculated on what millage rate increases might be included for taxpayers.

“I am sure it would give you more manpower but the possibility of taxes going up would hurt people that can’t afford it,” Hadden said. “The Una Fire District is about 80 percent low-to-moderate income. It will hurt people and eventually there will be tax increases to support it.”

Una Community Fire Department has 30 volunteer firefighters and only two full-time firefighters and one part-time firefighter.

There’s no rush to merge or consolidate fire departments.

Spartanburg County Council Chairman Manning Lynch said the advisory committee wasn’t given a timeline on when to present its recommendations.

“It’s clear we have a lot of fire departments in Spartanburg County,” Lynch said. “Personnel is our biggest issue. We have plenty of equipment in the county but have a hard time with personnel. The volunteer model doesn’t work anymore from what I have been told. We have to have more departments respond to get manpower on the job. The benefit to people in the consolidation or merger is we will have departments with more manpower on duty at any one time.”

Lynch said merging or consolidating fire departments with similar millage rate structures makes the most sense. He also agrees consolidating departments will be more cost-effective.

“We duplicate services too much,” Lynch said. “There’s too much duplication of equipment.”


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