Starting next year, one entity, that of Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue, will provide fire service to Columbia County's unincorporated area.
County officials say the change, which was approved unanimously by the county commission Tuesday night, will mean the unincorporated area of the county, excluding the cities of Harlem and Grovetown, will have 24/7 coverage at 10 stations as of Jan. 1.
The fire service consolidation will cause North Columbia Fire & Rescue to become consolidated into Martinez-Columbia. North Columbia had been responsible for fire coverage in areas such as Appling, Leah and Winfield. Next year, those areas will be overseen by Martinez-Columbia and the county will assume North Columbia's debt.
The consolidation plan will add 20 employees to Martinez-Columbia's staff, officials said, adding that North Columbia volunteers are allowed to apply for those positions.
Pam Tucker, Columbia County's emergency services director, told the commission at its Tuesday night meeting that the fire service consolidation plan "would be the best way to go.''
North Columbia officials told commissioners they don't disagree with the idea to have a consolidation of fire services. They did, however, express concerns about how it's being done.
North Columbia Chief Tom McFarland said his firefighters have been concerned that if they were taken on board by Martinez-Columbia, they wouldn't be able to keep their current rank.
"We had assumed merger meant merger,'' he said. "... We'd like to see more of a merger.''
He also said the county would have to assume all of North Columbia's debt.
Tucker then assured McFarland that the debt would be taken care of by the county.
"That is absolutely part of this transition,'' she said.
There also was concern by some North Columbia firefighters that, unlike in their department, volunteers taken on by Martinez-Columbia might not be allowed to drive fire trucks. Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper, though, told the commission that trained volunteers are allowed to drive fire trucks in his department.
Cooper said his goal is to use as many North Columbia volunteers as possible, and that his department is confident it can provide top-level service to all of the county's unincorporated area.
"I think the whole thing is getting blown out of proportion,'' Cooper said, referring to concerns expressed about the fire service consolidation plan.
North Columbia and Martinez-Columbia officials plan to meet Nov. 8 to help North Columbia transition into Martinez-Columbia.
In other action at Tuesday night's meeting, the commission also:
- Unanimously approved a second and final reading of a Corridor Protection Overlay District for Columbia Road. The district places aesthetic restrictions on new businesses in the designated area, such as no metal building construction and requiring hedgerows in front of commercial property.
- Unanimously approved a first reading of a Corridor Protection Overlay District for south Washington Road.
- Accepted a donation of surplus furniture to the county from Savannah River Site to be used in the county's new fire stations. Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the donation will save the county more than $60,000.
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