Columbia, South Carolina Fire Department Seeks Federal Assistance

Staffing problems are making it harder for the Columbia Fire Department to respond to county calls, a problem Chief Bradley Anderson hopes to remedy with the help of federal dollars.

According to a risk analysis conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Columbia Fire Department "does not maintain sufficient personnel" and "fails to meet performance objectives described in current industry standards."

Eight of the fire stations have only one paid firefighter on duty at all times, an engineer who drives the truck. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations require that at least four firefighters be on a scene before they can start fighting fires.

In the city, getting four firefighters on the scene isn't a problem because most stations have at least four firefighters on duty. In the county, a fire call means rounding up firefighters from other stations, which takes time.

"Those paid engineers are going to calls by themselves," Anderson said.

The department wants nearly $1.4 million to hire 29 engineers so it can staff at least two firefighters at its county stations, which rely heavily on volunteers. The department hopes to get that money from the Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with administering $65 million through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grants.

James Ballentine is an engineer at the Capital View station. He said he averages about one volunteer per call, if he's lucky.

"It's stressful at times knowing that you're going to get on that truck and run a call and not know if anyone else is going to show up," he said. "I'm my own engineer, my own captain and my own firefighter if need be."

Ballentine said he has often had civilians help him direct traffic or position a fire hose and has performed CPR on at least four people by himself, which he said is "very stressful."

"It ruins your whole day," he said. "Your heart's racing, just knowing you're it, you're all that person has."

Anderson requested the $1.4 million for the additional staff from County Council this fiscal year, but it was denied because it was too expensive. The county gave permission for the department to apply for the grant, but the council still has to approve it, according to Michael Byrd, emergency services director for Richland County.

"We have to evaluate them to make sure they fit into the county's financial situation," he said. "If the grant runs out, where is the funding going to come from to pick up whatever commitment we've made?"

Byrd said the county supports improving the fire service every year. This year, council members agreed to buy some pumper trucks, as well as to allocate $109,000 for a volunteer services coordinator to help offset the volunteer shortage.

The county has added 80 paid positions since 1990. But the department is struggling to keep up with the growth of the community.

While structure fires have decreased -- from 806 in 1991 to 585 in 2004 -- false alarms have jumped to 4,947 in 2004, compared with 1,123 in 1991, which Anderson attributes to the county's growth. Since 1990, Richland County's population has grown by nearly 49,000 people.

"That's more stuff that we have to protect," he said. "We're just basically trying to catch up with the development."

In addition to the 29 county firefighters, the department is requesting 14 positions for some of its county rescue units, 15 to staff a ladder company in the St. Andrews area and 15 battalion chief aides. That brings the total grant request to about $6.8 million over four years, with the county taking over the full amount in the fifth year.

The SAFER grant is set up to avoid having a department get into financial trouble. The grants last five years, with funding decreasing every year so the local government gradually can pick up the tab.

In the first year, the grant would cover about $2.3 million, while the department would pay $256,623. In the fourth year, the federal government would pay $876,000, and the county would pay about $2.1 million.