It's hard to believe that less than three years ago, unincorporated Columbia County - which is to say about 80 percent or more of the county's population - was protected by private firefighters paid through unreliable subscription fees.
The county has come a long way since then. Commissioners quickly, and boldly, raised taxes to pay for fire service and set up a contractual relationship with the private fire departments. Those departments then eliminated their subscription fees, three of the smaller departments merged and professional firefighters are now manning stations throughout the county.
The next step will begin next week, when officials from North Columbia Fire & Rescue meet with the much-larger Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue to discuss merging the private agencies.
"Our goal is to get one service provider in the unincorporated area of the county," says County Administrator Steve Szablewski. Eventually, that would lead to professionally staffed 24-hour fire stations in all areas of the county, improving citizens' safety and lowering fire insurance costs.
On the way to a streamlined fire service, however, there are bound to be a few bumps in the road. Currently, the biggest such obstacle is the difficulty in meshing county services with the Harlem and Grovetown fire departments.
Under the prior subscription system, the two cities protected subscribers just outside their city limits. When the subscription service ended, it was replaced with a plan in which the county pays the two departments per call for each trip outside their boundaries.
That's been fine for the county, but the cities haven't been very happy with the arrangement. The cities have to maintain the same level of equipment and staffing whether they respond to one call or 100; few calls mean a lot of investment sitting idle.
Harlem, for example, responded to no fire calls outside the city in September, says Mayor Scott Dean - so the city essentially was on standby, free, for response to county calls.
As a result, Harlem is ending the deal as of Jan. 1. After that date, Harlem fire trucks will no longer respond to calls outside the city limits. Even after the North Columbia and Martinez departments merge, the new department will have a tough time protecting those areas. They'll need to work quickly on a mutual-aid agreement with the city to keep residents outside Harlem safe.
It's also an incentive for those residents to seek entry into the city through annexation. Until the county fire service gets full-time staffed stations in the farthest reaches of the county, there will still be a disparity in how citizens are protected.
Even these bumps in the road will eventually smooth out. A better, safer community awaits on the other side.
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