On July 1, the Clarendon County Fire Department merged with the EMS. This decision, which was made a year ago by the Clarendon County Council, resulted in the Clarendon County Fire and Rescue Department. Chief Michael A. Johnson sat down for an Editors Office Interview to discuss this merger.
Editor, Jake McELveen: So, you operate as the Fire Chief of the Clarendon County Fire Department, right?
Michael A. Johnson: I am now the Chief of the Fire and Rescue Department.
Which means you’re playing a major role in this Fire Department and EMS merger.
Is there a separate head of the EMS?
I serve as the Chief of the Department. Brad Gerfin was the EMS Director when it was McLeod Health Clarendon EMS. He moved over in the merger and now has the title of Deputy Chief of EMS Operations. He is an awesome individual who has a in-depth knowledge of the service.
When did all of this begin?
Last year around this time the county decided that they would begin providing EMS services for its citizens. So, we have been working on this merger for a year. EMS has received a much larger call volume over the years, and so the county decided it would be a better idea for them to provide the service. That was the ultimate factor in bringing them together.
What is their call volume like?
The EMS is receiving roughly 6,000 calls per year. Our fire department before EMS came over was used to responding to around 1,500 calls per year.
That’s a major increase.
Yeah, it is. Saying that, roughly 600 of the fire departments calls were medical-related. So, we are already used to responding to them, just not in that volume. We’re guessing that we will average around 6,500 to 6,700 calls a year as an agency.
What are some changes you have made in preparation for July 1?
Dr. Bobby Ridgeway has come on as our medical director. He is a medical doctor who will be able to give us guidance as a service moving forward. We hired Crystal Miller as a full-time EMS Training Officer to keep everyone certified. During the transition, we hired on Steven Smith as a Materials Management Officer. He keeps up with everything going in and going out to the stations, including all of the medications, and materials we need for operations.
We also made some changes in our rank structure.
All previous EMS Supervisors now serve as Captains in our new department. In addition all EMS Assistant Supervisors are now serving as Lieutenants. Steven Demby moved over as a Captain/Community Paramedic.
Robert Pegram served as a Battalion Chief over community risk reduction, as well as a Fire Marshall, and now he serves as a Division Chief. Joshua Jordan moved from Battalion Chief to Division Chief over Training. Paul Shipp served as Lieutenant over Recruitment and Retention. He will now be serving as a Captain.
We have seen a lot of changes.
I imagine so. Take me back to the beginning, what were some of the major things County Council wanted to address with this merger?
Our County Council wants to provide the absolute best services to this citizens in our county and to those traveling through.
Do you think there will be any changes as far as response time goes?
We hope to improve that. Of course, it is going to take a long time to get our employees cross-trained. We are only six days into this. Our firefighters have had limited medical training in the past, and, at the same time, our EMS have had limited fire training. Our ultimate goal would be to get a little bit of cross-training across the board to all of our employees. We definitely hope to decrease response times, and even plan on adding additional ambulances in the future to do that.
How many people do you have on staff?
Before the merger, we had 96 volunteer firefighters, 38 full-time employees, and five part-time employees. After the merger, we have 96 volunteer firefighters, 68 full-time employees, and nine part-time employees.
How many are going through cross-training?
19 students recently completed the basic training fire classes, and of the 19, five are current EMS employees. The good thing is, some of our firefighters already had advanced medical training, and some EMS employees have had advanced firefighter training. So they will be a little bit easier to train moving forward. However, some of them have had no cross-training whatsoever, that is why having Crystal Miller is such a big advantage. We can develop our responders locally, without having to send them off for training. At the same time, we have a lot of certified fire instructors, so we can develop new firefighters within the county.
Will any of your volunteer firefighters go through the cross-training?
Absolutely, we will allow anyone to go through the training if they want to. The ultimate goal is to have a very well-trained firefighter who is also well trained in Emergency Medical Services. Our ultimate goal is to have a lot of Firefighters, Emergency Medical Technicians, and Paramedics spread across the county.
I know that it is an ongoing process, but when do you think you all will be fully functioning in the capacity that you’re aiming for?
It’s going to take years. We would all wish that it would happen a year from now, but we know that is unrealistic. We have a lot of hurdles to jump over. COVID has really affected us all by putting a damper on the group dynamic. It will take a while, but within a two or three years we hope to have everyone cross-trained well enough to operate on both sides.
Will everyone be required to cross-train?
No. We won’t force anyone to cross-train if they don’t want to. We have some excellent paramedics who never wanted to go into the fire service. They chose that career field, and we don’t want to force them into something that they don’t want. We want everyone who works with us to function where they want to function. We will give them some basic fire training so they are able to help out at our fires. We want them where they are comfortable, doing what they are good at.
So how busy has it been since July 1?
Well, on top of the merger, we have a lot of background stuff going on. We just finished building Station 4, which is our Wyboo station. Due to COVID, we haven’t been able to have that grand opening yet. Also, when the EMS merged with us, they moved out of all of their old stations. That means the EMS stations in Wyboo, New Zion, Summerton, and Manning were all vacated. All of the ambulances are now moved into our Fire Stations, meaning we’ve been going through several renovations to make room.
Having space has been the largest issue for us. Our administrative staff had to relocate to a separate building in Manning.
What’s going to happen with those old EMS stations?
That is hospital property, owned by McLeod Health Clarendon. It’s kind of up to them what they are used for moving forward. However, it presents a nice advantage having our EMS and Firefighters together. They are always there and available to learn from each other and also in constant communication with each other.
Has the introduction of all these new employees been smooth?
It has. We have some incredible people across the board. It all starts with the volunteers. Our volunteers have been very open and accepting of these new employees. It’s been fantastic, they have done an amazing job coming together.
Alright. One last question, if you could get a message out to Clarendon, what would it be?
First of all, I would tell them to thank your County Council and our County Administration. Our County Council has been very supportive, and they care greatly about their citizens. They wanted to provide the best service they could. And that is what we are here to do, provide that service to the citizens of this county. At the same time, we are always looking for more Firefighters, Emergency Medical Technicians, and Paramedics. Most of our emergency responses need multiple responders to effectively mitigate the emergencies. At the end of the day, however, we are here to serve you.