Blythewood Seeks More Paid Firefighters

BLYTHEWOOD (Dec. 8, 2016) – During opening comments at last week’s Town Council meeting, Councilman Eddie Baughman told Council members and the audience that the Blythewood community is in dire need of better fire protection. He said that need is based on the lack of paid firefighters manning the station in downtown Blythewood on a daily basis.

“Right now we have only two paid firefighters on duty any day of the week,” Baughman said. “We need four on duty 24/7, 365 days of the year. To have that, we need six additional personnel for our station – three captains and three firefighters. That would give us two additional personnel in the station each day, around the clock. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have fire protection for our community as good as the fire protection in Wildwood, Woodcreek and other communities, which have fully staffed stations.”

But adequate paid fire protection has been slow coming to Blythewood.

Baughman, a former firefighter and retired battalion chief with a 26-year career as a fireman, said he and Councilman Tom Utroska took their concerns to Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins last summer to determine how much it would cost the County to provide six more personnel in the station in Blythewood. A unifying contract for fire protection between the City of Columbia and Richland County gives management of the fire side of the contract to Jenkins, Baughman said. But it is the County that pays the cost of fire protection for the City and the County. That cost, Baughman said, is about $23 million annually.

The cost for the additional six personnel, Jenkins reportedly told Baughman and Utroska, would be about $425,000 annually in addition to the current cost of $400,000 for a total of $825,000.

In October, Baughman and Mayor J. Michael Ross took their request for the additional personnel to their Richland County Council representative Joyce Dickerson who put them in touch with the Assistant County Administrator Kevin Brunson. Now Baughman is waiting to hear back from Brunson.

For years, Blythewood’s fire station was manned by volunteers only, long a revered group in the community. The station was still manned primarily by volunteers until the early 2000s. While the station is approved for up to 20 volunteers, there are only about 8-10 active volunteers now, Baughman said. But he told The Voice following the meeting that a lack of paid personnel is putting residents at risk.

“While the six more paid firefighters will not necessarily make the response time any faster, there are laws that limit what firefighting crews are allowed to do if they lack adequate personnel on the scene,” Baughman said. “For instance, the ‘two-in/two-out’ rule is a state law that prohibits firefighters from going into a burning building if there are not the same number of firefighters on the outside of the building. An exception, of course, is when someone is trapped inside the burning building. But having only two paid firefighters severely limits our citizens’ fire protection.”

While volunteers are a great source of help and can be numbered in the ‘two-in/two-out’ rule, volunteers are many times at work and not available when the fire starts, Baughman said.

“We have the lowest ISO ratings we’ve ever had and we have some of the best equipment,” Baughman said. “All of our trucks are brand new. We got a new engine last summer and two weeks ago we got a new tanker and a new brush truck. We’ve got about $1 million of the finest equipment sitting in our fire station.

“But while we have great ISO ratings and great firefighting equipment, we don’t have enough manpower,” Baughman added. “And that’s crucial. It’s going to take some doing to get them. It’s something the people in the community should know about and be concerned about. Everyone in the community is going to have to be concerned and push for it if we’re going to get it.”

Baughman said he was not sure when he would hear back from Richland County concerning his and Mayor Ross’ request.