Additional around-the-clock fire service protection has arrived to the outlying areas of Columbia County as two existing Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue stations and one new station began 24-hour staffed service Saturday.
On June 20, Columbia County commissioners approved a $621,957 increase in Martinez-Columbia's fire service contract. Of that money, $555,042 will pay for the 11 new firefighters required to provide 24-hour service at the department's stations on White Road outside Harlem and Columbia Road in Appling, plus a new station set to open Saturday on Ray Owens Road in Leah at the former Leah High School site.
The remaining $66,915 will fund utilities upgrades at other stations.
Pam Tucker, the county's emergency services director, said her agency is looking ahead to finish the construction of new stations to replace temporary facilities on Sugarcreek Drive outside Grovetown, Clary Cut Road outside Harlem, Old Louisville Road and a station on Ray Owens Road in Phinizy. All are scheduled for completion by the beginning of September, she said.
Tucker also has requested funds for four new pumper trucks and an aerial truck, plus a new training facility at the Columbia Road station to be included in a proposed general obligation bond that commissioners hope to put before voters in a November referendum.
Now more than six months after Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue assumed fire, medical first response, extrication and hazardous material response coverage over the vast majority of the unincorporated portions of Columbia County, Tucker said the transition continues to be a smooth one "considering the massive changes that have taken place, not only in the last six months, but in the last three years from A to Z."
The county's effort to consolidate fire service began three years ago by integrating the Leah, Winfield and Appling volunteer fire departments into North Columbia Fire & Rescue. The ultimate goal, Tucker said, was to move from volunteer departments to 24-hour staffed fire service.
At 7 a.m. on Dec. 31, Martinez-Columbia assumed fire protection, medical first response and extrication services for the northern parts of the county from the now-disbanded North Columbia department. The year's end also marked the expiration of a pay-per-call fire service contract with the Harlem Department of Public Safety for unincorporated areas south of the city.
Grovetown Department of Public Safety still provides pay-per-call service to a small portion of the county south of the city, Tucker said. As of Thursday, Grovetown had responded to four calls from that area for the year, she said.
As of Saturday, the county increased the number of 24-hour staffed stations in the unincorporated areas from six in 2003 to 13, Tucker said.
"It has been monumental for any county this size to go from what we were three years ago to this point," she said.
Changes in fire service have led to an improved fire service rating, which lowers homeowners' insurance rates, Tucker said. The Martinez-Evans area carries a rating of four, while the northern areas of the county carry a five. The lower the number the better the score. Tucker said sections of the rural areas previously carried a rating of nine.
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