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Richland County fire trucks now properly staffed. But for how long?

How Columbia Fire Department trains to fight fires

Columbia Fire Department firefighter Jason Joannides walks through the training process in a simulated burning building.
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Columbia Fire Department firefighter Jason Joannides walks through the training process in a simulated burning building.

Columbia-Richland County fire trucks are now fully staffed after the firefighters union claimed that short staffing was putting firefighters and some neighborhoods in danger.

Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins confirmed the trucks now are fully staffed, and he hasn’t yet needed to cut in other areas.

“We’re going to leave it like this and then reevaluate,” he said.

In the meantime, he will try to convince Richland County Council members to restore some of the nearly $2 million they shorted the department in this year’s budget — a decision he said caused the under staffing.

“We’re going to have a conversation,” he said.

But if those negotiations don’t bear fruit, he might have to go back to short staffed trucks.

“Maybe I’ll have to send out another truck with them,” he said. “I don’t know.”

The five short-staffed engines were a result of underfunding by the Richland County Council, Columbia Richland Firefighters Association president Jacob Eller said last week. Eller said five of the joint fire department’s engines were running with one fewer person than is recommended.

National Fire Protection Association standards advise that the five Richland County trucks should carry four firefighters each to operate at minimum level of safety, Eller said.

Jenkins said he had been assigning three firefighters to trucks that should have been carrying four because he didn’t want to go over the budgeted amount he received from the county.

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“WE DID IT!!! Mission #safercolumbia was a success!” union officials posted on social media. “This will allow the Columbia-Richland Fire Department to again serve the public at a safer, more efficient level that we NEVER should have gone away from in the first place.”

The staffing shortage did not affect trucks within the Columbia city limits. The five understaffed trucks were:

  • Engine 14, which serves the area around Two Notch Road and Decker Boulevard, near Interstate 20

  • Engine 24, which serves the area around Two Notch Road and Sparkleberry Lane
  • Engine 31, which serves the area at the end of Leesburg Road at U.S. 601
  • Engine 32, which serves the area around Two Notch Road and Raven Road
  • Engine 33, which serves the Arcadia Lakes area near Forest Drive

This year, the city fully funded the fire service, allocating $23.6 million in its 2019-2020 budget. The county did not, Jenkins said.

In July, when the county council approved its budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, it shorted the fire service around $1.8 million, according to the chief.

Jenkins said he requested at least $23 million from the county, which would cover all costs, but instead received $21.3 million as of Aug. 5.

County Council member Joe Walker said he and some other members are lobbying for the budget to be revisited and perhaps fully fund the fire department through reserve funds or other means.

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.
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