AFTER TWO counterproductive years of wrangling and finger pointing, Columbia and Richland County finally agreed to a new joint fire service contract.
The two sides started so far apart that at one point Richland County seriously, and foolishly, considered walking away and establishing its own system. That would have been a monumental mistake that not only would have led to poorer fire service but would have dealt a serious blow to city-county cooperation. Columbia and Richland serve many of the same constituents, and as the demand for basic government services increases, the governments must work together to continue to provide residents quality amenities at the best cost.
While Columbia and Richland have had a number of successful joint ventures, the joint fire system is the best example of city-county cooperation. It also has proved to be effective: The more-than-20-year-old agreement has led to improved fire services and lower insurance premiums.
The continued success of this system serves as a beacon of hope that that the city and county will work to combine even more services and, who knows, one day even seriously consider doing what for the moment is politically impossible — merging city and county governments.
While neither the county nor the city got all it wanted, the new fire agreement goes a long way toward addressing many of their concerns, which is a testament to the negotiating teams that worked out the details. One of the biggest sticking points, and there were several, was Columbia’s desire to vest more power into the fire chief, while Richland County sought more control over the operations of the system and how the chief did his job.
The resulting pact appropriately gives the professional chief the freedom to run the fire operation, which is as it should be, but also gives the county some input. The city also wanted the county to help pay the salaries for top command staff, which Richland agreed to do.
The agreement also addresses the county’s long-held desire to track how money is spent, manpower is deployed and equipment is dispensed. An oversight committee will be key to ensuring proper accountability.
While we commend Columbia and Richland for forging this new agreement, although belatedly, there is still room for improvement going forward. First of all, the deal should have been for more than five years. Although the arrangement needs to be reviewed regularly, the basic agreement holding this essential service together should not be up for debate every few years. There is no reason that two governments whose fates are intertwined shouldn’t have a longer contract.
Secondly, Columbia and Richland should work toward a fully merged fire system that includes EMS. Placing the two departments under one command would end an overall lack of coordination between fire and EMS and would make it easier to remove barriers to improve service and save lives.
For now, though, city and county residents can rest easy that the joint fire system is alive and well — at least for another five years.