Bethel fire department prepares to build new Clover station

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMarch 9, 2013 

— Faced with fighting fires in one of York County’s fastest growing areas, firefighters with the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department are preparing to build a station designed to replace their aging facility, which is no longer large enough to house big trucks and a growing staff.

Last month, the York County Council agreed to transfer two parcels of county-owned land near the fire station to the Bethel Rural Fire Tax District, allowing firefighters to build a larger fire station that officials want to equip with more offices and sleeping quarters for the department’s four full time staff members and more than 50 volunteers.

The new station will be where the current facility stands on S.C. 557 in Clover.

The Bethel Volunteer Fire Department has operated since 1966, said Chief Michael Laws, and covers about 60 square miles of the Clover/Lake Wylie area. The district is home to 20,000 residents.

“The potential for catastrophic events for anybody is always there,” Laws said. “We’re always prepared.”

But, he added, a new station that houses more equipment will bolster services and cut down on response times if more people are staffing the station at one time.

It’ll also give more room for the heavy stuff.

In the 1960s, “your basic fire truck was small,” Laws said. Now, typical engines are at least 100 inches wide and up to 30 feet long.

“Our trucks barely fit in there,” he said, adding that the original station was given to the fire department by a storage facility. “We’ve far outgrown our station. The time’s come.”

Plans include erecting a drive-thru station so firefighters no longer have to back trucks into ports. Instead, they can drive an engine through the station and park it, said Lex Cathey, a Bethel volunteer firefighter and the new station’s project manager.

The station is expected to cost just under $2 million, Cathey said.

Tax revenue from Bethel’s rural fire tax district will fund the new station, Laws said. Construction is expected to take about 11 months to complete.

Laws said he hopes a new station will help lower the department’s Insurance Services Office, or ISO, rating, currently at 5 to 4. Fire departments receive ISO ratings based on factors that include the number of people they have on staff and the quality of the equipment used. Those ratings directly affect homeowner’s insurance premiums for residents living within five miles of a fire station.

Bethel substations on Hands Mill Highway in Clover and off Paraham Road near York, have helped reduce the rating, Laws said.

Laws and Cathey both said a new station is a big step in one day staffing the fire department around the clock with more full-time employees.

“The community said they wanted a tax district, paid firemen, better service—it’s time we continue to move in that route,” he said.

Laws said several citizens already think the fire station is staffed around the clock. Aside from the four full-time paid firefighters, volunteers - including Laws - work at the station part-time after working 40 hours a week at other jobs.

Still building

Bethel is now the second of several rural county fire departments to build a new station despite the county’s decision to transfer $3.1 million initially earmarked for building rural substations to constructing a new county fire training center.

Fire chiefs, county officials and members of the Rural Fire Board, which oversees and distributes money to the county’s 17 rural fire districts, have said a new training facility will provide more room for repairing vehicles and training the county’s 600 paid and volunteer firefighters.

York County Council hired a York architectural firm to design the new facility, which is slated to include a vehicle repair shop, classroom space, a burn tower and a helicopter landing pad.

Laws, who doesn’t sit on the board, agrees with the decision, saying Bethel and other rural fire districts will benefit from the center’s resources.

One of the biggest features of the center, Laws said, is the extensive work they do on brush trucks, tanker trucks and service trucks. Also, workers perform something called fabrication, where they take a cabin chassis purchased by the county and turns it into a working fire truck.

But, not all agree with the training center decision.

Ken Belk, chief of Bullock Creek Volunteer Fire Department, balked at taking money away from substations for the new training center on York’s McFarland Road, which is roughly 11 miles from the current facility on Ogden Road in Rock Hill. It’ll cost at least $4.2 million.

“It’s the county’s responsibility to provide fire services,” Belk said. “It’s not right what they’re doing.”

Unlike a number of rural fire stations, Bullock Creek, which responds to calls in the southwestern portion of the county, has no plans to build a substation without county support.

That would require a tax increase.

“It’s really not a good time” to add an extra tax burden on citizens, Belk said.

When residents outside the fire station’s radius complain about insurance bills, Belk tells them about the county’s decision.

Meanwhile, several rural fire departments have stated their intentions to build new substations without the backing of countywide tax dollars.

Hickory Grove’s volunteer fire department has done that. Firefighters moved into their new substation on Hopewell Road on Dec. 1, said Chief Kenny Gilfillan.

Hickory Grove’s 37 volunteers can now park a truck in the substation. They hope to convert space to make room for another. It’s a boon for residents who once lived more than five miles from the main station and felt the burden of high insurance costs.

The Smyrna Fire Department has acquired property to build a substation on Black Highway by the end of the year with hopes that’ll it reduce insurance premiums for residents who lived more than five miles from the original fire station, said Rickey Wilson, Smyrna fire chief. The project will cost about $10,000.

The Sharon Volunteer Fire Department is currently having two acres of land on Hord Road surveyed for a substation, said Chief Oliver Dowdle.

The Sharon department, without a tax district, is depending on the community “to support us as they have in the past.” Dowdle estimates the station might cost $125,000.

Still searching

But the Bethany-Santiago Fire Department, which covers the northwestern corner of the county north of S.C. 161 and west of S.C. 55, isn’t any closer to building a new substation, said Chief Tim Gordon.

Gordon said firefighters have been speaking with property owners and searching for the land, but they’ve been unable to find anyone willing to sell.

“Without the land, we really can’t go any farther,” he said.

Aside from the money the fire department receives for the county, which Gordon said is used for upkeep, firefighters depend on donations to keep services up and running. And, without an established tax district, Gordon said his crew doesn’t have a choice but to seek donations to finance a substation.

The fire department serves about 5,000 residents, Gordon said, many of whom “do a pretty good job” supporting the fire station, especially during an annual March barbecue and bake sale that Gordon says makes up the bulk of the department’s budget.

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