Richland County discusses future of fire department

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - A long-standing agreement on how Columbia and Richland County protect residents from fire could be in jeopardy if both sides don't hammer out a new deal.

Since 1990, the city-county fire services have operated jointly, with all answering to the fire chief. For months, the city and county have been negotiating a new agreement on the joint operation, and now some Richland County leaders want more of a voice in how the system is run.

The agreement has expired, but is currently going month-to-month while both sides figure out how to move forward.

On Monday, Columbia-Richland fire chief Aubrey Jenkins and his command staff, flanked by dozens of firefighters in attendance at a hearing on the issue, argued to Richland County leaders that he needs to have the power to make decisions about staffing, equipment and decisions at all 32 stations in the department.

"We do want to have a seamless operation," said Jenkins. "It's not only enough to have the responsibility. But, I've got to have the authority to implement the programs, the SOP's (standard operating procedures)."

The Columbia-Richland Fire Department has more than 120 volunteer firefighters, all of them serving in stations outside Columbia city limits, making up 21 percent of the department's personnel. The rest is made of almost 400 "career firefighters." Jenkins wants to expand the volunteer force to 260 members, which he says is standard.

Those improvements require training programs and additional equipment, which will have to be backed financially. The county has never had a voice in how their roughly $17 million-a-year contribution to the fire system is used and is looking to change that in a new contract.

"The county in the past should have had more input with regards to their funding. We should have been tracking those dollars a long time ago," said Kelvin Washington, Richland County council chairman. "But, the way the budget has increased over time it's kind of alarming to find out now we have a large budget for fire and we've never tracked that funding."

Both sides of the issue think there was progress made during Monday's nearly two-hour session, and are optimistic an agreement can once again be reached. But, if negotiations fall through, the county is researching its own separate fire service as a backup plan.

"It's not adversarial in any way," said Washington. "All it is, for us the county, is to be in a good position if negotiations stall or fall apart."

Critics say the county isn't equipped to put its own fire service in place at this point and if they did break away from the current city-county system it would impact public safety and increase homeowners' insurance rates.

"Not only county residents but also city residents, residents of Blythewood, Forest Acres, Arcadia Lakes, all those little incorporated areas within Richland County would also have a drastic, direct impact," said Travis Carricato of the Columbia Firefighters' Association.

Tarricato points to a third-party study completed by USC several years ago showing that the area's ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating would be impacted by a split. The ISO's Public Protection Classification gauges the fire protection capability of a local fire department to respond to structure fires. The scale is ranked 1 to 10, with 1 being the best possible rating.

Still, county leaders argue staff research shows a split from the current fire system would have no impact on the ISO rating, and say the USC study was "done some time ago" and isn't comprehensive enough.

There is no timetable on when a new contract will be complete for a joint Columbia-Richland fire system. Richland County and Columbia city council will likely meet in the near future to talk about what each needs from a new deal.