SC fire departments struggle with mutual aid

By Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When a Charleston police officer shot a woman during a confrontation in West Ashley last week, the closest emergency workers to render aid were St. Andrews firefighters, located just a few hundred feet down the road.

Though some in the fire station were close enough to hear the gunshots, the city never called them in to help, depending instead on Charleston firefighters located more than a mile away.

To some, it reinforced the belief that all the recent talk about mutual aid and cooperation was just that — talk. For years, city fire engines rolled by St. Andrews Public Service District stations on their way to calls, even when St. Andrews firefighters were closer.

Officials from both fire departments insist they are working hard to usher in a new era of cooperation. They and other area fire departments are now training together, working from the same playbook and moving toward consolidated dispatching. But such changes take time and a bit of patience, officials said.

"The chiefs in this area want to provide the best possible coverage," St. Andrews Fire Chief Mark Schrade said. "We are working diligently to correct a problem that has existed for a long, long time."

The Charleston Fire Department was long known for its hard-charging style and reluctance to call on others for assistance. That has changed in the wake of the June 2007 Sofa Super Store fire in which nine city firefighters died. Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who took the helm last year, has pushed a more safety-oriented program with an eye toward regional cooperation.

The issue of mutual aid, however, reared its head again after a Charleston police officer shot a woman who reportedly tried to run him over at the corner of Ashley River Road and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard on Aug. 12. She was allegedly running from an officer who tried to stop her in connection with outstanding arrest warrants, police said. The shooting occurred less than 300 feet from St. Andrews fire headquarters on Ashley River Road.

At the time, St. Andrews firefighters were in the midst of training in the new procedures that area fire departments will be using to work more closely with each other and the city of Charleston, firefighters said.

One St. Andrews firefighter, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said commanding officers told them they would not be responding to the incident unless the city called and asked for their help. The department did not want to be seen as trying to "jump" the city's calls, he said.

Meanwhile, city dispatchers called in Charleston Fire Engine 16 from Ashley Hall Plantation Road, more than a mile away.

Some curious St. Andrews firefighters wandered outside after hearing that call and a Charleston police officer waved them over, the firefighter said. Once again, they were told not to butt into the city's call without being asked, he said. As they went back to the station, Engine 16 and a county ambulance arrived, he said.

Some firefighters felt they had an obligation to respond whether invited or not.

"This has been an ongoing thing," the firefighter said. "I'm sure that woman wouldn't have cared if it had been St. Andrews, St. Johns or the city, as long they were there to help. It should be that the closest people go."

Schrade said he couldn't respond to specifics of that account because he had not had an opportunity to look into the matter. But he said his department would generally not respond to such a call unless requested, particularly if it involved gunplay and the possibility that firefighters would be in harm's way.

That said, Schrade said St. Andrews and other area fire departments are making great strides in working together and overcoming decades of differing styles and distrust. "We're trying to undo years of essentially backwards operations," he said.

Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Charleston Fire Department, said city officials had been unaware of the rumblings over the shooting response. He too urged patience. In the coming months, the fire departments will be moving toward a system where the closest engines are automatically dispatched to calls in a true regional response. Carr is committed to that system, but it takes time to put together and ensure everyone is properly prepared and trained, he said.

Already, progress can be seen in recent calls where city firefighters have worked alongside their counterparts battling fires on Johns Island and in Mount Pleasant and North Charleston, Ruppel said. Such cooperation was rare just a few years ago.

"We're building a great program," he said. "But it's not an overnight fix. You can't flick a switch and make it happen."

Copyright 2009 The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
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