County looks to enhance fire service

County officials formally accepted a grant last week that could stem the tide of shrinking volunteer firefighter numbers in Lancaster County.
On Aug. 24, Lancaster County Council unanimously accepted a $1 million-plus federal grant to help recruit and retain local volunteer firefighters.
The grant acceptance comes about a month after members of Lancaster County Fire Rescue learned in late July the county had been awarded the $1,048,905 four-year Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
County Administrator Steve Willis and Darren Player, deputy director for Lancaster County Fire Rescue, who were on hand to explain the grant, told council the grant is 100 percent federally funded, meaning no local match is required.
“There is no match, period. This is all federal money,” Player said. “This is not Lancaster County taxpayer money.”
The funding will be used to enact an ambitious recruitment and retention plan to help boost the local volunteer force, which has dropped sharply from more than 600 in the 1980s to between 275 and 300 today.
That plan, which fire officials presented to Lancaster County Council earlier this year, includes a marketing strategy to help recruit new members, an increase in recognition programs and an incentive system allowing volunteers to redeem points for items such as firefighter-related apparel, all designed to keep current volunteers and woo new ones into the fold.
Player noted the grant includes funding for one staff member to track grant performance and volunteer firefighter activity.
“A coordinator is an essential part of the grant,” he said. “Whoever is hired for that position will be aware it’s a four-year job unless it’s successful.”
At the end of the grant, the county will examine the program’s success in recruitment and retention. If successful, he expects there could be a continuation of funding from local resources following the initial four-year period.
“We’ll see whether we retained people we have and did we add people to the program,” he said.
Flipping through a report provided to council, which showed estimated costs for various parts of the program during each of the four years, Councilman Larry McCullough asked for the development of specific milestones to help show the success of the program.
“We need to go ahead and earmark what success looks like and what metrics we’re shooting for,” he said.
Player said the ultimate goal of the program is to prevent the county from having to one day fund a full-time, county-wide fire service, which could potentially cost millions of dollars.
“We want to forestall that as long as we can,” he said. “If we had to pay for all that we do, it would be more than double the county’s budget and I don’t think people would be able to live here.”
Willis has said the FEMA grant is notable since Lancaster County was one of only three South Carolina locations awarded recruitment and retention grants during the current federal grant cycle. The other two grants include $350,588 awarded to the Lugoff Fire District and $132,000 awarded to the Newberry Fire Department.
This is the second time the county has applied for the same grant during the last few years, but the first time it has received the grant. The county won a similar-sized SAFER grant from FEMA in 2013 to pay for 10 full-time firefighters to be used throughout the county. That SAFER award was for $1,012,696.

Other grants
Council later approved accepting three more grants, including an emergency management grant and two firefighter grants.
Council first approved a $58,524 local emergency management performance grant awarded from the state Emergency Management Division. The 100 percent grant will be used to replace a command vehicle assigned to Patrick Helms with Lancaster County Emergency Management. The SUV is outfitted with communication and command/control equipment for use at emergency scenes.
Also approved were two FEMA Assistance to Firefighters grants, both of which are 95 percent federally funded and require a 5 percent local match.
The first grant funds $14,465 to buy 13 sets of Wildland turnout gear for the Flat Creek volunteer fire department. The gear is used for fighting brush fires and helping at vehicle crash extrications.
The second grant funds $17,018 to buy a washer/extractor and air dryer for firefighter gear for the Tradesville volunteer fire department.
Councilman Larry Honeycutt approved of all three grants.
“These grants we’re talking about tonight are outstanding opportunities for our fire service,” he said. “It’s good money and it doesn’t cost the county much.”
Willis lauded the county’s fire service for its recent success in applying for and receiving grants.
“They are on a roll and have hit every one they’ve applied for,” Willis said. “They are hitting 1,000 this year.”

By Christopher Sardelli, Staff Reporter with The Lancaster News