Lack of volunteer firefighters in South Carolina reaching critical levels

by Caroline Balchunas


 

Firefighter are a vital part of every community, but the number of volunteer firefighters is on the decline nationwide.

In South Carolina, volunteer firefighters have decreased between 15 and 20-percent over the last 15 years, according to statistics from state fire officials. But their role is still crucial, especially for rural areas without funding for their own department.

The first person on the scene at the deadly school shooting in Anderson County last year was a volunteer firefighter. He was able to take down the shooter and likely prevented more lives being lost.

There are 17,800 firefighters in the Palmetto state and 65-percent of those are volunteers, according to the S.C. Firefighters Association. They said growth is largely to blame, since firefighters are leaving rural communities for bigger cities with paying jobs.

Captain Michael Brinson volunteers at the Macedonia and Alvin stations in Berkeley County, but holds a paying position in St. Andrews.

“It used to, as I was coming up, it felt like everybody at your high school was junior firemen,” Brinson said. “Now it feels like you have to pull teeth to get anybody to volunteer. But, (it has to be) your calling. I want to let people know, we need you out here.”

In small towns like Macedonia, volunteers are often a lifeline, especially when every minute counts.

“We live so far out, EMS is so stretched out, it can take anywhere from ten minutes to thirty minutes for an EMS truck to get to your house,” Brinson said. “Usually if we get a call for a wreck or a house fire, it’s pretty serious it’s not a little small fire or wreck, it’s usually pretty serious.”

SCFA said the times may have changed, but the need has not. Even though fire calls have decreased over the last year, firefighters respond to all emergencies. It costs around $110,000 to maintain a fleet of three fire trucks and make sure each station is prepared for anything.

“The guys that volunteer out here are dedicated,” Brinson said. “They put the hours, time, blood, sweat and tears to keep up with the changes in the fire service because the fire service is changing dramatically.”

In the Tri-County area, Berkeley County has the most fire stations. Out of 20 departments, 13 of those are volunteer.