'YOU DESERVE BETTER': S.C. firefighters plead for community support

The Georgetown County firefighter union released a statement detailing all the issues they've been facing in hopes of drumming up community support


David Weissman
The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

GEORGETOWN COUNTY, S.C. — Georgetown County firefighters, facing a yearslong staffing shortage, are sending their strongest message yet that the current situation is untenable.

The local firefighter union posted a lengthy statement on its Facebook page Tuesday detailing all the issues they've been facing in hopes of drumming up community support to pressure county officials to make improvements.

"YOU DESERVE BETTER," the union wrote in bold font multiple times throughout the statement while explaining that a lack of paramedics, overworked firefighters and understaffed stations is threatening the safety of the residents. "The life it affects could be yours or your family's." (Photo/Georgetown County Fire and EMS)

"YOU DESERVE BETTER," the union wrote in bold font multiple times throughout the statement while explaining that a lack of paramedics, overworked firefighters and understaffed stations is threatening the safety of the residents. "The life it affects could be yours or your family's."

Current staff are frequently forced to work 48 hours on, 24 hours off as opposed to their normal 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule, leading to burnout and high turnover, the union writes.

Brandon Ellis, the county's director of emergency services, didn't dispute any of the assertions made in the statement, but noted that staffing issues within emergency services appear to be a common theme across the state, and they're just trying to do the best they can with the cards they've been dealt.

The department currently has 15 vacancies, he added.

Bill Pesature, vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina, warned that unless the county starts taking care of its fire department, there could eventually be no firefighters left.

Georgetown County Fire/EMS staffs its stations with just one firefighter on a truck, The Sun News reported last year, while professional standards recommend at least four, which is the amount necessary to enter a burning house.

"There's a reason fire trucks are made with lots of seats," Pesature said.

The union notes its even had to temporarily shut down engines due to a lack of available employees and there aren't enough trained and active volunteer firefighters to fill the gaps.

Emphasizing lower salaries compared to surrounding fire departments and a lack of longevity pay, the firefighters are encouraging residents to demand better from their county council members.

Ellis said his department is always advocating for more positions and higher pay, and the most recent increase was a 2.4% raise in 2018, bringing the average firefighter/paramedic salary to $44,120, while firefighter/EMTs are making about $36,212.

The fire department has already nearly exhausted its annual overtime budget within the first quarter of the fiscal year, Ellis added, though most of those costs should be offset by the vacancies.

The union's statement comes just days before longtime Chief Mack Reed is set to retire after more than 30 years leading the department.

Pesature argued that the overarching issue is that not much has changed in that time as far as taking care of the firefighters.

"Everything has been put on hold forever," he said. "It's going to take a long time, money, and (county officials are) scared to do that. ... They just gotta learn how to pay the piper."

Ellis admitted he worries how outsiders might view all the attention being brought to issues within the department, and he hopes it doesn't negatively impact their ability to recruit.

Pesature and the rest of the state firefighter association have been increasingly active in recent months, including advocating for Myrtle Beach Fire Department alumni to retain their health benefits, but haven't seen many positive development yet, he admitted.

"Residents need to be more involved with us; we can yell all we want," he said. "Unfortunately we may not see something change until there's a tragedy. All these cities and counties are just playing Russian roulette."

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(c)2021 The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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