What happens if Clover firefighters walk? Town, county talk plans after chief dispute

Preparations are being made to keep fire service active in Clover should volunteer firefighters leave, though town and county officials are hopeful it won’t get to that point.

Clover Town Council on Monday night called a special meeting to discuss hiring a new fire chief. A public meeting followed with a packed house.

WSOC, an affiliate of The Herald, reported Clover fire department volunteers said they’d leave it if a new chief is hired instead of long-time volunteer Chief Charlie Love.

Allison Harvey, town administrator, said Tuesday she has been working to keep Clover covered with fire protection.

“Fire departments in York County provide mutual aid to other departments,” Harvey said. “I’ve contacted other departments to alert them about the possibility of a walkout so that they can be prepared.”

Other options have been discussed, she said, and community safety is of the utmost importance.

“I would be disappointed and saddened if any firefighter left the department,” Harvey said.

Volunteer Luke Braswell said Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t talked with other volunteers since Monday night’s council decision to move ahead with the new hire.

“It’s not something any of us are taking lightly,” he said. “No one wants to walk away but we feel betrayed, especially after last night. The council’s decision was made up before that public meeting even took place, no matter what the community had to say. It’s a real shame.”

The Clover department covers 44 square miles. According to its website, about three-quarters of all department calls come from the unincorporated area surrounding Clover. The department on Bethel Street has 21 active members.

Three other fire districts border it. Bethany Santiago and Bethel border to the west and east, respectively. York sits to the south.

“Bethel, Bethany and York would cover the area with no issues,” said Allison Love, whose York County Council district covers Clover and Lake Wylie.

Fire departments already cover for one another during large events or when multiple calls come in at a time. Often, fire scenes involve responders from numerous districts across jurisdictional lines.

Trish Startup, public information officer for York County, said mutual aid agreements could be used.

“Yes, there will be coverage,” she said. “There are already existing plans in place with mutual aid departments, as well as with other volunteers throughout the county.”

The York County Department of Fire Safety works with 18 municipal and volunteer fire departments in the county. They include paid, volunteer and combination — some paid, some volunteer — units. The county provides some level of funding, training, maintenance and apparatus service to each group.

Clover leaders decided to bring on a chief and firefighter as the first paid positions within the department. Additional paid staff, Harvey said, are likely to be added later. Love had been volunteer chief for 16 years and applied for the paid position. The town instead went with former Gastonia, N.C., and Crowders Mountain firefighter Billy Thompson.

Harvey said standard hiring process was used, and it determined Thompson was the best-qualified candidate.

“Chief Love’s commitment and dedication to the Clover Fire Department, its members and this community is beyond reproach,” she said.

Thompson retired after 31 years in Gastonia, leaving the department as deputy chief. He was chief at Crowders Mountain Fire & Rescue when that department transitioned from an all-volunteer to a combination unit. The same process Clover is undergoing.

Some say the town picked the wrong person. Raymond Bayly started a change.org petition asking people to sign if they want Love to remain chief.

“I have personally watched as he has raised money, fought fires and successfully led the department being not only the chief but a role model for every firefighter Clover has,” Bayly’s petition reads.

On Tuesday morning, the petition surpassed 1,000 online signatures.

Mayor Greg Holmes said his council listened to the crowd Monday night but weren’t swayed from its administrator’s recommendation.

“Nothing changed,” Holmes said. “In any decision, it’s not always about the majority that shows up. Overall, any decision should be about what’s best for the town.”

Holmes said is hopeful volunteers will continue to serve.

“It has been a concern,” Holmes said. “I hope it doesn’t happen that way. I don’t feel like all the volunteers would walk away, not at the point where it will be an emergency.”

Thompson faced a similar hiring controversy. The special fire tax board that oversaw the Bethel department voted in December 2016 to hire Thompson as the first paid chief there. Bethel covers the Lake Wylie area. It’s a long-time volunteer department, but funding decisions were made by a tax board after voters approved a special tax district in 2009.

For about a year, department leaders and the tax board were at odds on funding decisions. The controversy came to a head with Thompson’s hire to replace Chief Don Love — Charlie Love’s brother. Bethel volunteers also said they’d leave before accepting a new paid chief.

In January 2017, just days before Thompson was to take control and after he’d left his former job, York County Council voted to disband the fire tax board. Thompson never took over, and Don Love remained chief. County management took financial control.

It set off a countywide effort to look at fire safety. The county this year re-established the Bethel tax board and appointed new members.

In Clover, Thompson is set to begin his new role March 4.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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