County Fire Department celebrates 40 years of service
by Robert Joseph Baker | July 14, 2017 1:02 am
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a series of stories The Manning Times will run this month in honor of the Clarendon County Fire Department celebrating 40 years of service. Here, we focus on the history of the department itself.
When Clarendon County Council put on the November 1976 ballot the question of whether residents would support a county-wide fire service, voters responded by nearly 4-1 in favor of it.
This month, the Clarendon County Fire Department celebrates 40 years of service.
“More than four decades ago, 77 percent of Clarendon County residents lived with only the limited fire protection that could be provided by Manning, Summerton and Turbeville fire departments,” said former Clarendon County Fire Chief Carter Jones. “Paxville and Wyboo also offered limited protection with surplus equipment on loan from the South Carolina Forestry Commission.”
An escalation of fire calls throughout the decade put a strain on the municipal and community fire services, and towns made a move to curtail their responses to county calls, except for those reporting entrapment.
County Council set about to research of a county-wide system, working with Santee-Lynches Regional Council of Governments on a feasibility study in 1976.
“As a result of that, and other independent research conducted by the firefighters of the town departments, an Advisory Referendum was put on the ballot in November of that year to determine whether or not the residents wanted to pay the bill for a county fire department,” said Jones.
The plan ultimately adopted called for a “phase-in” approach whereby apparatus, equipment and stations would be purchased over time rather than by implementing them all at once.
County Council ultimately set out to hire a county fire marshal to coordinate all aspects of establishing a new county-wide system; purchase five modern fire trucks to be located in strategic locations in order to obtain the most coverage, and then, if the first phase proved successful, order four additional trucks to further expand the system; renovate or construct stations to house the new apparatus; and purchase a communications system to support the prompt dispatch of firefighters and apparatus.
Jones, who had served as a deputy state fire marshal and state fire instructor, was hired as the first fire chief. The first fire engine arrived in 1978 and was assigned to Station No. 2 in Turbeville.
“When the truck was driven into town on a cold January night, around 12:30 a.m., the siren was blowing and air horns blaring all the way down main street,” said Jones. “Witnesses describe how lights came on in most of the houses in town when the residents of Turbeville were rudely awakened.”
The late Jesse Powell, former Turbeville Police chief, said at the time that he “ain’t never heard nothing that loud in my life.”
“Former Turbeville Fire Chief Wayne Gibbons was driving the truck and was ‘egged on’ to blow the siren by another fireman, the late Richard McFaddin, who was riding in the officer’s seat,” Jones said.
Several months later the remaining trucks of the initial five-truck order came to the county.
“With apparatus, equipment and communications in place, it was now time to begin the process of recruiting and training volunteers to operate these machines,” Jones said.
To that end, Jones held community meetings in Wyboo, Alcolu and other areas to identify volunteers who would begin the 42-hour training sessions. He offered the town firefighters the same training, so they would all meet then-current standards established by the South Carolina Fire Academy.
They trained every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night for 14 weeks, and threw in a few Saturdays for good measure.
“It’s a wonder Mary Jo stayed with me, but she recognized the importance and supported me,” said Jones. “In fact, she became the county’s first female firefighter.”
Jones and his wife – married just two years when he took the position – often took their young sons on calls. Both Jonathan and Craig would grow up to become firefighters, and Jonathan Jones currently serves as the state fire marshal.
Shortly after the department was formed, surveys demonstrated that expanding fire protection had lowered insurance ratings. County Council quickly approved Phase II of the expansion process, ordering four additional fire engines and other equipment.
Debates and late night meetings led to decisions to place the new engines in Davis Station, Taw Caw, Paxville and Sardinia-Gable.
The new department and its continued expansion brought with it a new way for residents to notify emergency responders that they were in trouble: In 1978, Council Council Chairman John Frances and Administrator Ray Brown sought to replace the outdated seven-digit phone number used by the public to call for emergency services.
“I was eventually pursuaded into also assuming the role of director of communications to get this new system into operation,” said Jones. The system ultimately brought together three police departments; three fire departments; two independent rescue squads; the Sheriff’s Office; EMS; the Highway Patrol; and the S.C. Forestry Commission.
“The public could now access an emergency agency simply by dialing 911,” said Jones, who also underwent training by the State Law Enforcement Division to use the National Crime Information Center data system. Jones was also responsible for hiring and training new dispatchers, which included Jackie Blackwell, Viola Billups, C.B. Mathis, Jane Osborne and M. Jones Gamble.
“In 10 short years, the fire department grew from a single employee with no office or vehicle to an organization operating out of 11 stations and supported by more than 250 volunteer firefighters,” said Jones. “We continued to expand into additional communities, including Union-Oakdale, North Santee, Panola, Brewington-Foreston, Barrineau and the Bloomville area.”
The 16th station was built in recent years near the Clarendon County Industrial Park at Ram Bay. While Jones served as chief in overseeing day-to-day operations of the fire service, the department was led from its inception to 1999 by the County Fire Advisory Board with the approval of County Council on matters of budget and policy.
“The growth of the fire department and progress made by its members were due in large part to the vision and creative thinking of these leaders,” said Jones.
In 1998, county leaders expressed the intention to abolish the duties of the Fire Advisory Board, placing the day-to-day operations under County Council’s purview.
“Firefighters voiced vehement opposition to their plans and warned that it would be a terrible decision since the department was running smoothly under the current arrangement,” Jones said.
Jones was fired in January 1999, and three other employees were locked out of their offices at the department pending an audit of the department’s records.
That evening, a large number of firefighters brought all the engines from 15 stations to Manning and surrounded the courthouse, placing their gear in front of the building in protest. Gov. David Beasley then activated the S.C. National Guard after a request from the county.
The guard manned a number of the county’s 15 stations for about four weeks. After weeks of negotiations and with the reinstatement of Jones for retirement purposes, most of the volunteer firefighters returned to their assigned positions.
Jones’ replacement struggled with the department reins for about two years, terminating several “longtime and dependable employees,” Jones said. County Council then named Frances Richbourg chief, the position in which she serves to this day.
“They hoped that she could bring the department back to its previous status as a progressive organization, and that she did,” Jones said.