After nearly two years of negotiations, Richland County and Columbia have settled on a contract to maintain joint fire service.
Tuesday night, County Council unanimously approved the five-year agreement, designed to control costs by recruiting volunteer firefighters in rural areas while maintaining the city-appointed fire chief’s autonomy.
“It’s not a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ — it’s a ‘we,’” said Councilman Greg Pearce, who led contract negotiations on the county’s side.
Pearce said the joint system assures “extremely high-quality fire service” with each jurisdiction backing up the other.
Last year, a county-funded audit revealed what some characterized as the city’s inability to account for county equipment within the $37 million joint system.
As a result, the contract sets out regular reports by the chief to county officials and creates a joint Fire Advisory Committee to air concerns. It also requires a year-end inventory of equipment.
Already, the city has rolled out a program to recruit and train more volunteer firefighters for the rural portion of the system, a strategy to control costs.
Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins and the county’s emergency services director, Michael Byrd, stood side-by-side to endorse the contract.
City Council approved the document with a unanimous vote on May 15.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.