Columbia County Board of Commissioners was expected to vote Tuesday in favor of a consolidated fire service for the county's unincorporated area.
The move is designed to hand over the county's unincorporated areas to Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue, starting Jan. 1.
It's an effort that was favorably forwarded to the commission in a committee meeting Oct. 24, and is one that some say will help the county by providing 24/7 coverage for the county's unincorporated areas at 10 stations.
"We couldn't be prouder of how this has turned out,'' said Pam Tucker, the county's emergency services director.
Others, though, such as North Columbia Fire & Rescue volunteer Patrick Cail, say they hope some aspects of the change won't actually hurt response times in some northern parts of the county.
"There's an old saying, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it,' " he said. "And we operate very well out here.''
As part of a plan to consolidate fire service in the county's unincorporated areas (which excludes the cities of Harlem and Grovetown), Martinez-Columbia would take over the area currently serviced by North Columbia.
Cail said doing so will change the setup of how volunteer firefighters are able to respond to fires in the area. North Columbia volunteers, he said, are able to respond to fire scenes with trucks and firefighting equipment. Martinez-Columbia, though, doesn't allow its volunteers to drive the trucks, he said, adding that he believes that would reduce the number of people who might be able to quickly put out a fire in some of the outreaches of the northern communities.
Cail said he also has concerns about Martinez-Columbia staffing one station in the North Columbia area.
Tucker, however, says more support for that region of the county will be available.
"Now this is going to be also supported by all of the other Martinez-Columbia fire stations,'' she said. "You've got the one on Clary Cut, No. 6, No. 5, all of those other Martinez stations. So it's not like you're just having one Martinez station (in Phinizy).''
At the Oct. 24 Community and Emergency Services Committee meeting, Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper said he feels confident his department will be able to provide the service needed to all of the county's unincorporated areas.
"I know we can do a good job,'' the chief said.
Tucker said that with the change in fire service to one entity, it will make response calls from dispatchers easier by keeping them from having to determine which fire department should be dispatched to a certain area.
"There's no more dispatch confusion of who has the right territory,'' she said, adding that all of Interstate 20 will now fall under Martinez-Columbia. In the past, extrication services needed south of the I-20 line were overseen by Grovetown, with extrication north of I-20 the duty of Martinez-Columbia.
Now, Martinez-Columbia will assume extrication duties for all of the county's unincorporated areas.
Tucker said that for one entity to overtake fire service in the unincorporated areas of the county, it will cost the county $116,000 more, a cost, she said, that is mostly coming from the addition of 20 Martinez-Columbia hires.
Despite the change, Harlem and Grovetown will continue to provide fire service within their city boundaries. Harlem has decided not to renew a contract for next year with the county to provide fire service on a pay-per-call basis to unincorporated areas just outside their city limits.
Harlem Mayor Scott Dean has said the nonrenewal resulted after Harlem officials received no response from the county concerning an offer they made. That offer asked the county to reimburse Harlem with the fire service fees collected in the unincorporated areas the city now services instead of on a pay-per-call basis.
Grovetown's contract with the county will be amended to have Grovetown covering only a small area just south of its city limits on a pay-per-call basis starting next year.
There's also an issue with fire hydrants. If Martinez-Columbia uses a Harlem-owned hydrant on the outskirts of the city's limits, they are to notify the city of the use. If a hydrant is damaged, the county would be liable, according to an agreement between the two entities.
Grovetown has not requested such an agreement.
The new fire service consolidation was expected to be approved by county commissioners at their Tuesday night meeting, allowing the consolidation to go into effect Jan. 1. Tucker said there also will be a meeting Tuesday to help North Columbia transition into Martinez-Columbia. She said North Columbia volunteers are being allowed to apply for positions with Martinez-Columbia, adding that some North Columbia volunteers already have been brought on to the Martinez-Columbia department.
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