Fairfield desperately needs more volunteer and paid firefighters

A desperate plea for volunteer firefighters greets drivers coming into Winnsboro at the intersection of the Hwy 321 Bypass and Business. | Martha Ladd

FAIRFIELD COUNTY – A new sign erected at the Bypass on Monday says it all: “Volunteer Firefighters Needed.”

“We’re desperate,” says Jason Pope, the county fire chief. “We’re really desperate for more firefighters right now.

Who says you can’t fight fire in a dress? Sallie Williams came straight from work, stepped into her boots and britches and responded to a wood and brush fire in White Oak. | Contributed

“We have some of the best volunteers in the state: committed, dedicated, willing to serve,” Pope says. “We just don’t have enough of them. We need twice as many to properly protect the county.”

Countywide, Pope says, there are currently 60 volunteer firefighters who actively respond to calls. In the last 5 years, the county has also hired 11 paid firefighters – four full-time and seven part time — who help to cover daytime hours while many of the volunteers are at work outside the county.

But for a county the size of Fairfield, he says, that’s not enough. And because of the staffing shortage, the county has repeatedly had to ask neighboring counties – including Newberry and Richland – for help to respond to calls.

“I can think of four incidents in the last several months where we’ve had to call mutual aid resources from another county in order to get enough staffing at a house fire,” he says. “We’ve had to do that several times lately.”

What he didn’t say – but what county residents frequently say – is that in rural parts of the county, houses have burned to the ground, especially during nighttime hours, simply because there are not enough firefighters to respond to the calls quickly enough to put out the fires.

Though 130 people are qualified and on the roster as volunteers, Pope says, some of those who were once active are no longer able to be, whether because of work or family commitments or simply because their age and health no longer allow it.

“Plus, people are just busy. I think people are busier now than they were 20 years ago, so it’s difficult,” Pope says. “It’s difficult to find the time.”

When fire services began in Fairfield County in the 1970s, he says, there was little funding from the county level; instead, communities raised the money – and provided the volunteer manpower – to build fire stations, buy apparatus and equipment, and man the stations around the clock.

But in the last 20 years, Fairfield County – like many rural counties in South Carolina and around the United States – has seen a drop in volunteer involvement.

In that time, the county has provided funding for stations and equipment, Pope says, but staffing has increasingly become an issue.

The rising average age of volunteers, he says, is also having an impact.

“At one of our fire stations, the average age of the volunteers is 72,” Pope says. “The next youngest station, the average age is 62.”

Countywide, he says, the average age of all firefighters – paid and volunteer – is approaching 50. 

“Their dedication is amazing, and it’s just incredible some of the things that they’ve been able to do and still do even as they get older,” he says. “They still turn out, they still show up, because they’re in it for the right reasons: They want to help people, and that’s the motivator.”

Station Chief Tommy Sawyer, Becky Ladd and John Ladd make up the team of volunteer firefighters at the Jenkinsville Fire Department. One full-time firefighter is employed at the Jenkinsville station Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Photo: Martha Ladd

But, he says, the county needs more people – including young people – who have the same passion for serving their communities either as volunteer or as paid firefighters.

Together, he says, waning numbers and an aging volunteer base have reduced the county’s overall capabilities to respond to fire calls and fight fires.

For those who are interested, he says, the cost of fire academy training is largely paid by the state, meaning it costs little to nothing for the individual.

And, while serving as a volunteer firefighter is not a part-time job by any means, those who volunteer regularly are paid a stipend, typically several hundred dollars based on their participation in meetings, trainings, and calls. They receive it a few weeks before Christmas each year.

Junior firefighters can join at age 16 and are allowed to attend some training and perform limited volunteer duties. Anyone age 18 or above can serve as a volunteer firefighter.

“We desperately need more volunteers in the county,” Pope said several times during the interview. “I just want to remind our community of the need in our county. Think about your neighbor. This is a great way to serve and protect right in your backyard.”

While the Fire Service recently received $400,000  from state earmark money for protective equipment and the county is planning to spend $340,000 of its American Rescue Plan funding to replace a 35-year-old tanker, Pope says, he hopes the county can increase funding to replace other aging fire trucks, consider hiring more paid career firefighters to cover times and locations where there aren’t enough volunteers to cover, and provide more benefits and incentives to volunteers.

“I’m thankful for each and every one of our staff, both volunteer and paid,” Pope says. “We just continue to try to do whatever we can to support them and try to encourage people to sign up and help our community.”

A volunteer firefighter since 2003, Jamie Webb has been named Deputy Fire Chief for Fairfield County Fire Service effective Aug. 15. For the last eight years, he has served as a Chief Officer at the Ridgeway Fire Station. Jamie has spearheaded many of the county’s volunteer recruitment efforts. Before coming to the Fire Service, Webb served as shop foreman of the county bus shop. In 2019, he was named America’s Best School Bus Technician. | Contributed


  1. Mike Bell (NO RELATON TO MOSES) says

    Great people doing great work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]