When Columbia County officials this past summer completed the five-year update of the comprehensive fire services study, many of the recommendations of the far-reaching plan focused on improving fire protection in the rural areas of the county.
The study pointed out the barriers to such improvements, including too few dollars spread among too many volunteer agencies, and too little water for fighting fires.
Targeting those areas, the study suggested using sales-tax funds to build a shared fire station for the Appling, Winfield and Leah volunteer fire departments, and pooling funds from tax-collected fire fees to pay for full-time, on duty firefighters. That doesnt take care of the pressing need for more water lines, but its a good start.
Its great news, then, that the proposal is getting its first foot forward not from the county taking action, but from those volunteer departments joining forces and moving forward on their own.
Within a couple of months, North Columbia Fire and Rescue will be born from a merger of the Appling, Winfield and Leah volunteer fire departments. Instead of three chiefs and three small fire departments, one chief will direct a bigger, stronger agency able to take steps toward hiring the areas first full-time firefighters.
When you have a structure fire, it requires all three of the fire departments to come together, says Appling Fire Chief Tom McFarland. Basically, it just makes sense that if you have all three merge together, you have all three working together, training together.
News of this merger comes the same week that a structure fire in Leah - in a home belonging to a relative of a Leah Capt. Vinny Vizzari - brought all three departments to the fire fight.
Most of the home was destroyed, and part of the blame rests with the lack of water lines, which forces firefighters to rely on tankers shuttling water to the scene. The cooperation that already exists between the departments isnt a problem, but theres only so much they can do with older equipment and non-existent infrastructure.
Solutions to those problems are just around the corner. A new round of sales-tax projects to be approved next year will undoubtedly include water line improvements for the north end of the county. And if county officials sign off on the plan to collect fire taxes in place of the private fire departments notoriously unreliable subscription fees, more money will be available to buy new equipment and pay people to operate it.
Appling, Winfield and Leah fire officials, who have operated under difficult circumstances for years with little thanks, deserve a salute for taking a giant leap toward improving fire protection in their communities. When fueled by a reliable source of funds, we can expect the new North Columbia Fire and Rescue to take off like wildfire.
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