Slow Response Times in S.C. County Not Expected to Improve

Sept. 02--LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. -- Emergency responders are falling short -- significantly at times -- in getting to the scene in 15 minutes or less in Lexington County, public-safety officials say.

But residents shouldn't expect to see major improvement anytime soon.

Deputies, ambulances and firefighters report failure to meet the self-imposed goals for response in about one of every three calls during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

And 911 dispatchers say they don't get public safety teams rolling within a minute in slightly more than half of 386,000 calls received for help. In part, that's because cellphone calls -- about three-fourths of those received -- don't automatically provide an address as land lines do, requiring extra time to establish a location, officials said.

The shortcomings were presented as part of an annual update recently to County Council.

Response times vary by agency and for parts of the county that are urban, suburban and rural. For some fires, getting to the site in 24 minutes is considered satisfactory.

Still, the standard for arriving on the scene within 15 minutes or less should apply to 90 percent of calls, public-safety officials say.

To make significant improvements, the county will have to hire dozens of staff to keep pace with rising demand as more residents settle in the 720-square-mile county, some officials say.

But raising taxes to pay for that isn't a political option in this fast-growing county, leaders say.

And state law prevents the county from seeing significantly more tax revenue from the growth, some say.

A state-imposed tax cap on local revenue growth "slows our ability to keep up," Fire Chief Brad Cox said.

Tight finances led council members to turn down requests for more than 40 additional public safety staff for the spending plan that took effect July 1.

Nearly half of the county's 1,400 employees are deputies, firefighters, emergency medical staff and 911 dispatchers.

Responses to calls for emergency help are satisfactory given the financial constraints, council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.

"We're providing adequate service, but we can always do better," he said.

Attaining the levels recommended by public safety officials would mean a sizable tax hike that is impossible politically and legally, he said.

"We're providing what the citizens of Lexington County are willing to pay for," Jeffcoat said.

Having the goals is important, even though meeting them is likely to take a while, county administrator Joe Mergo said.

"It sets expectations of what we're trying to get to," he said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

Copyright 2014 - The State (Columbia, S.C.)