Half of South Carolina Town's Firefighters Quit

April 23, 2008
A Pickens County fire department is relying on outside help because more than half of its volunteer staff just quit.


A Pickens County fire department is relying on outside help because more than half of its volunteer staff just quit.

The Pumpkintown Volunteer Fire Department had 33 firefighters Monday, but after the Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 not to re-appoint Acting Fire Chief David James, only 12 remained on the job.

Former firefighter Tim Cooper said, "It's fluid situation. There's approximately 12 left of which only about six are certified to fight interior firefighting."

The flag flying half-staff at the Pumpkintown Fire Department conveys the loss of available firefighters.

Cooper said, "In essence, if there were tones to go out for a structure fire, there could be a response from none to very few."

He said, "We have to shuttle water. We have to haul our water to the fires. It takes a lot more manpower to set up a shuttle-water system and relay water than it would if you had a hydrant nearby."

Fire Department Commissioner Rhonda Billingsley said, "Apparently their loyalty is with the fire chief, which it should be. But their loyalty should also be to the community."

Billingsley said, "Our main problem with the chief was his blatant defiance of the board. He lied to the firefighters. He was just not the leader that we felt he should be."

Board member Liz Meyers said that the department answered fewer than 100 calls in the year from Nov. 1, 2006 to Oct. 31, 2007. Of those calls, 35 were fires, 27 were medical emergencies and 20 were other incidents, like trees falling because of weather, Meyers said.

The firefighters who quit said that they're at odds with the board on how to best serve the community.

It's an ongoing battle about staffing levels, equipment and training for the volunteers. The department has a $96,000 annual budget.

Cooper said, "It's not good for the community to slowly decimate our ranks so that there's nobody qualified to respond to fires."

Billingsley said, "We want our firemen to be community-oriented and they should be staying here for our community. No matter who we have as chief."

Neighboring fire districts have agreed to help out in the event of an emergency. Meanwhile, neighbors such as Ann Soenen say it's sad to see the fire station empty like this.

"I'm grateful for them," Soenen said. "I will never take them for granted again."

Soenen said, "I've seen firemen risk their lives and save families that lost everything, that had nothing to start with."

"They do far more than the public realizes than just putting out fires," she said.

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