HCFR looks to county that solved staffing problems years ago


As a department, Colleton County Fire Rescue handles twice as many calls as a single Horry County Fire Rescue ambulance. It relies on volunteers to staff many of its 36 stations, and serves a population of just 40,000 people.

However, the size of the county, plus similarities in equipment and setup, have placed Colleton County on Horry County officials' list of departments to compare themselves to, according to a high ranking employee of HCFR.

Despite its size, Colleton County Fire Rescue has an unusual trait: It has far more paramedics than the department needs.

Horry County, on the other hand, is struggling to hire enough to fill its rotation.

RELATED: Amid paramedics' claims of exhaustion, HCFR begins to change recruiting tactics

"All the counties that are here are competing for the same pool of people," Colleton County Fire Rescue Chief Barry McRoy explained. "So a lot of people move from one agency to another depending on who's paying the most money."

For paramedics, Colleton County has opened up the purse strings.

McRoy said the department offers a starting salary of $59,700 per year. The same person would only earn around $42,000 in Horry County, as well as several other departments in the region.

As for overtime, Colleton County decided to let the extra pay kick in after 40 hours per week worked, even though McRoy said firefighters are exempt from normal overtime laws.

"If you've got good people, you need to keep them," Colleton County Councilman Gene Whetsell, who McRoy credited with helping to shift more funds towards the fire department, said. "If adjacent counties are paying $2 per hour more than what we're paying for a paramedic, they're going to leave Colleton and go there."

Whetsell speaks from experience in handling that very situation. A few years ago, Charleston and other nearby fire departments raised their base salaries, prompting several paramedics to leave Colleton within a few months.

Despite having a significantly smaller tax base, Colleton County officials decided to follow suit.

Today, roughly 2/3 of the department's full time staff are paramedics. The surplus gives McRoy room to implement policies that several of his employees said keeps morale up.

One of the most significant, both McRoy and the paramedics said, is a policy that lets paramedics rotate between ambulances and fire trucks.

"When you become a paramedic, [other departments] assign you to an ambulance, and you can never get off the ambulance," McRoy explained. "In our department, they'll ride the fire truck for a month, and ride the ambulance for a month."

The employees told our crew that they couldn't imagine working on an ambulance full-time, calling ambulance shifts "exhausting" and saying that the variety prevents burnout.

McRoy also said being a paramedic is a requirement for promotion to higher ranks.

However, he admitted his department wasn't without its own set of problems. Chief among them; the lack of ambulances.

Colleton only has nine year-round ambulances for its 36 stations, meaning response times are higher and crews need to travel farther. Horry County operates 19.

McRoy said he'd like to purchase more, but didn't have the money to do so.

Come budget time, he might have some help from Councilman Whetsell.

"That's a priority in budget time, is your fire rescue," Whetsell said. "We put the money where we think it should be, and our council is supportive of it, and our people are supportive of it."

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