York County fire departments react to county oversight
York County soon may step into the business of putting out fires. But not without being asked to, at least for now.
Riverview Volunteer Fire Department reached out to the county about making its firefighters full-time county employees. The possibility of the county taking over would be a new step.
“That does put the county, at least in the Riverview district, in the suppression business,” said Andy Merriman, assistant county manager. “We have never been in the fire suppression business.”
York County Council, which has final say, could get its first look at the decision within weeks.
“The county’s intent at this time is not to forcibly take over any departments,” Merriman said. “In this case, Riverview came to us. If other departments have an interest in this, I would certainly have the same conversation with them. But this is Riverview specific.”
Riverview department issues are similar to other parts of the county, stemmed by growth.
“The Riverview department, from a geographic standpoint, has a number of challenges,” Merriman said.
The fire district runs into Rock Hill along Cherry Road, almost to Cherry Park. Some of the businesses that once paid into the tax district now sit within Rock Hill limits, which has its own fire department.
“As Rock Hill has annexed, they’ve not taken in certain parts of what was York County and left Riverview in a tough position,” Merriman said.
Riverview also stretches along the opposite side of the Catawba River.
“Then you go on the north side of the river and you’ve got annexation pressures both from Tega Cay and to a smaller degree Fort Mill that has impacted their district,” Merriman said.
To meet the service demand, Merriman said, Riverview hired four full-time firefighters.
“We had to go to paid staff during the day because of that increase,” said Riverview Chief Lance Couch. “Being in the county system, there’s training they’ll get that I can’t provide.”
Couch said the Riverview tax board pays a premium for benefits with so few employees. He cuts the payroll checks.
“The thought process is that we don’t need to be in the HR business,” Couch said. “We’re firefighters. That’s what we do. We’re good at that. We’re not good at HR.”
The move would benefit the residents Riverview serves, he said.
“The county has the bigger pool for benefits,” he said. “Definitely get better health insurance, better retirement, so I can hire better people if I have a better program in place. That’s really what it is about, getting the best people I can to serve my district.”
Merriman said there could be other challenges.
“There is some concern I think from a legal standpoint and from a human resources standpoint on having full-time county employees reporting to a volunteer chief,” he said.
Fire protection can be a contentious issue.
In December 2016, the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department tax board hired a paid chief. The decision had been opposed for several months leading up to the decision by several volunteer firefighters. They wanted to continue electing their volunteer chief. York County Council two months earlier had weighed in backing the tax board’s ability to make the hire when pressed by volunteers.
However, the county stepped in just days before the new chief was to start. The county disbanded the board saying in an emergency ordinance the situation had escalated to “threats” by volunteers to refuse to respond to calls and acknowledge the new paid chief. The county “cannot risk the possibility of insufficient or inadequate fire coverage to the district,” the ordinance said.
The chief who was hired but never started at Bethel, Billy Thompson, was hired Feb. 25 as chief of the Clover Fire Department. Volunteers there also threatened to quit serving and were upset the town didn’t hire long-time volunteer and chief Charlie Love.
Paid vs. volunteer
There are 18 fire departments serving York County. Rock Hill, Fort Mill and others have paid municipal setups. Some departments are a mix of paid and volunteer. Some are all volunteer. Some have special tax district funding with five-member boards to oversee capital costs.
Rock Hill has at least twice as many active firefighters, 114, as all but one other county department (Flint Hill has 68). The Rock Hill department responded to at least three times as many calls last year — at 7,746 — as any other department in York County. On the other end, Bullocks Creek responded to fewer fires last year than three departments from outside York County.
Riverview ranked right in the middle last year for fire calls (No. 9 with 645 calls), but was fourth highest in active membership (55 firefighters).
One of the largest departments in unincorporated York County doesn’t share Riverview’s view.
“We’ve never wanted to become county employees,” said Flint Hill Volunteer Fire Department Chief David Jennings.
Flint Hill is one of two non-municipal departments, as is Newport in Rock Hill, with a paid chief. It’s one of seven with a tax board. Jennings said the benefits for paid firefighters at Flint Hill are as good or better than what the county would provide. Plus, he doesn’t want to lose his tax board.
“We’ve always had an incredibly strong tax board with valuable people on it,” Jennings said. “They give me tremendous input and help me make good decisions. We’ve been able to stay ahead of growth and every other issue because of a tax board.
“Those people live in our fire district. They know the fire department.”
Is it inevitable?
The county’s fire safety department supports fire departments in a variety of ways, including financial and training.
“The method by which most counties in the state have always done it is through the volunteer system, and then they support it any way they can,” Merriman said. “The county would be responsible if they folded, if they could no longer exist, to fill the gap.
“And so we are responsible in one way, shape or form for the provision of fire protection services in that area.”
Already many volunteer departments have tax districts set up to fund paid staff during the day, when many volunteers aren’t available.
“This population growth and increase in calls that correlates with that is going to put a lot of pressure on the volunteer model in general,” said York County Councilman Joel Hamilton.
York County Councilman Robert Winkler, who serves a western district with more volunteer departments than any other, envisions a tipping point.
“I do think eventually, 10 (to) 20 years from now, it’s going to have to be some hybrid of county employees and paid,” Winkler said.
Still, he said volunteers will be needed.
“Volunteers, in my lifetime I think, at least, have to be an important part of every fire department,” Winkler said. “The volunteers are too important.”
Jennings agrees at some point fire service will need to change.
“Yes, someday down the road I foresee us being a countywide department,” Jennings said. “But right now, my tax board is a better resource to me.”