Staffing challenges may contribute to longer emergency response times

WMBF News Investigates HCFR response times

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - In an emergency, every second counts. But what if your first responders were stuck in traffic, waiting for the right truck to show up or worse yet, understaffed. All are very real situations that can affect anyone's life in an emergency, so we started digging to see how safe you are if Horry County Fire Rescue was called to respond.

In July 2011, Brian Kratz watched his Carolina Forest townhome go up in flames.

"We walked around the corner and I saw nothing but fire on both panes of glass," recalls Kratz.

He called 911 right away and then tried with a friend to put the fire out.

"When we put the hose on it, it seemed like it created a bigger amount of flame, so we stopped," Kratz remembers. "We were just like 'the fire department's gonna be here any minute'."

He remembers those minutes feeling like a lifetime.

"The waiting, it just feels so long. And I'm watching this, every second I just know what's in there. I basically just, sat there and watched it burn," states Kratz.

He still gets emotional when he remembers the fire that destroyed all his belongings, but he gets mad when he thinks about how long it took first responders to get to the scene.

The closest station to his townhome in "The Farm" is HCFR's Carolina Bays station, but it's all volunteer. The first crew on scene was from Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue. It took HCFR crews nearly 10 minutes to get there.

"Why build a $2 million building, probably including equipment [and] trucks?" Kratz wonders. "It's probably not even three fourths of a mile away, which could have saved probably everything in my house."

The HCFR chief at the time said the response time for Kratz's fire could have been much faster.

"If people had been there, if the volunteers had been there, that fire truck would have been out in three or four minutes," former chief Garry Alderman said.

The problem is the buildings go up with the help of one-time money but there is no money for staffing. Horry County Fire Rescue is responsible for more than 1,100 sq. miles and when fully staffed, there are 88 fulltime firefighters ready to protect you at a moment's notice.

But 13 stations depend solely on volunteers.

"We cannot operate and provide a high level of service without a mixture of our fulltime firefighters and our volunteers," says Al Allen, Horry County Council vice-chairman.

That mixture of fulltime and volunteer is under heavy scrutiny in a busy and growing area like Carolina Forest. Horry County Fire Rescue operates one fulltime station on Carolina Forest Boulevard.

"Even though we have one of the largest fire rescue agencies this side of the Mississippi, we're still not up to par with most larger municipalities as far as a tax base and as far as the fulltime services that we can provide," Allen says.

Through a Freedom of Information request, WMBF News got a hold of all the calls HCFR responded to in August of this year. Of 4,388 total calls, 406 of them were fire related; the rest medical. In those 31 days, the quickest average response time was at the all-volunteer Carolina Bays station, the same one that took nearly 10 minutes to respond to Kratz's fire. During August, they responded to 41 calls and averaged a time of 6 minutes, 5 seconds to get there. One former volunteer says access to major roads is one reason why the station has the quickest response times.

Allen says Horry County Council is aware of the time it takes first responders to navigate area roads and says they're planning better for new stations.

"We try to locate them in areas that will provide the best physical access for those crews coming out of the fires houses because yes, we do have a problem here with traffic and with our infrastructure," admits Allen.

Some of the busiest call areas are also the most populated: Socastee, University (which covers parts of Carolina Forest and Conway) and both Myrtle Beach stations had the most calls in August and all had response times of 8 minutes or less.

"Anywhere that we have had a population growth, you are naturally going to see more response," Allen says.

The longest response times in the county during August were at all volunteer stations, most of them in rural areas. The Mt. Vernon and Joyner station crews averaged more than 15 minutes to get on scene.

The need for help is increasing in Horry County. By September of this year, crews already responded to 1,200 more calls than last year. And the problem Horry County faces is not going away because the budget isn't growing anywhere near as fast as the population.

"We have one large pie and that pie can only be cut so many ways," Allen says. "But you can come up with thinking outside of the box on how to cut that pie and how to distribute it where it needs to be."

He says there will be changes to the way HCFR operates, but right now, council is waiting on the new fire chief to study the department and determine what the best fix is going forward.

Copyright 2012 WMBF News. All rights reserved.