Rural fire departments in need of funds
A real threat looms in rural portions of Berkeley County that the fire departments and county council are trying to avoid: There is a fire somewhere in Berkeley County and there’s nobody there to put it out.
According to Berkeley County Councilman Ken Gunn, who is also the chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Committee, this is a real scenario that needs to be addressed.
“Rural fire department resources are limited and they are tasked with covering a great area of undeveloped land,” Gunn said. “With Berkeley County rural fire departments fighting more than 800 brush fires in 2012, there exists the very real possibility that they will be out on a call fighting a brush fire and not be there to answer the call of a house fire.”
Gunn said in his Justice and Public Safety committee meeting during council’s April 8 meeting that “rural fire departments answered calls to more brush fires than house fires last year. They are more expensive to fight and are located in remote areas where the rural fire departments lack the resources and equipment to adequately fight them.
“There has to be a more efficient way to do this.”
With the hope of finding a solution, Gunn’s committee proposed raising the protection fees on undeveloped or unimproved land in unincorporated Berkeley County from $2 to $25 for tracts of land from two acres to 500 acres to $10 to $100. “Unimproved” land are vacant lots from one acre up to 500 acres with no development.
The new fee is expected to generate more than $160,000 in funding for the rural fire departments.
Rural fire departments in Huger, Jamestown, Cainhoy, Shulerville, Macedonia, Bonneau, Whitesville, Moncks Corner and Cross are charged with providing fire protection for the vast unincorporated areas of Berkeley County, and it is protection that is spread way too thin according to Gunn.
Gunn proposed an ordinance recommending the creation of a contingency fund that will be under the control of the fire board. The committee hopes to complete an independent study of the rural fire departments and how to “make a better and more efficient wheel.”
Councilman Steve Davis, whose constituents live in these unincorporated and undeveloped areas of Berkeley County, doesn’t think the proposal is fair.
“I’m just concerned about another tax being put on the backs of the people who can least afford it,” he said. “My opinion is if you have a county wide EMS service you should have a county wide fire service as well.”
There has been a request for additional fees from the rural fire departments to increase the per house fee for fire protection from $70 per home to $110.
Gunn said the purpose of the independent study is to find a means to make county fire protection more efficient and hopefully more cost effective.
Councilman Caldwell Pinckney welcomes the idea of an independent study.
“I support this fees ordinance because of the fact we will be using these funds for an outside study that might go to provide a county-wide fire protection for folks that live in the rural areas,” he said. “I don’t think we’re getting the kind of protection we should because of lack of equipment and other things as well. I’m hoping that an independent study will cause this to happen.
“Berkeley County is growing, not just in the incorporated part of the county but also in the unincorporated part as well. Fire protection is one of those things I think we need to take a closer look at and I think that would be something that could be done more efficiently with an outside study being done.”
If something isn’t done, Berkeley County’s rural fire departments will slowly go broke.
“It’s a shame,” Gunn said. “I’ve gone through the paper work, I look at the budgets and I appreciate every single one of them. I’m a problem solver. Let’s stop and regroup, put a little bit of money out there, put our heads together and come up with a solution.
“An independent study is the best way to get everybody to agree with everything.”