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St. Paul Firefighters Deserve More Money
4/27/2016 10:40:14 AM

By Barney Blakeney

It was early and the ride was long. I promised St. Paul Fire District Chief Doc Matthews I’d take a tour of his stations to see what all the hoopla was about.

Matthews is locked in a struggle with the Charleston County Council over additional funding to give his firefighters raises. County Councilwoman Anna Johnson said Matthews’ problem is administrative.

I saw a lot on that trip to Yonges and Edisto Islands. I got a glimpse of the headache many motorists must get driving into and out of that part of the county. Transportation is a mess in Charleston County. Early morning traffic was bumper-to-bumper coming east to the city on U.S. Highway 17 South. I thought about how a mass transit system might work in Charleston. Apparently resolving the I-526 issue also is an administrative problem for the Charleston County Council.

It’s been years since I spent any time out in Hollywood. It’s changed. New homes are everywhere. Matthews grew up on the island, and except for a stint in the Army, he’s been a part of the district’s change.

Most of us never really think about fire departments. We pass the stations and see the trucks. The most interaction I have with fire service these days are at the grocers when the firefighters are buying dinner. We acknowledge their value, but they’re an invisible group of people - until you need ‘em.

I was impressed with the district’s Station #1 which was where I met Matthews. I’ve never seen a dirty fire station. The fire house looked like any other. As a cop reporter the last 30-plus or more years, I’ve seen my share of fire houses as they’re called nowadays.

You seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? Wrong. Fire stations are special places.
Matthews explained that the modern fire houses in St. Paul Fire District has been a process that’s developed over the past couple of decades.

There’s no money out there to fund the department’s $5 million annual budget, so they floated bonds to upgrade facilities and equipment. It’s been a good investment from what I could see. But Matthews says the department’s greatest asset is its firefighters.

He’s a stickler for training. It’s essential in rural communities, he said.

In the St. Paul Fire District, where several fire stations are manned by one or two people most days, firefighters must know what they’re doing and be able to do it well and alone!

Nine stations cover St. Paul’s 465 square miles. The district is the state’s second largest behind Lexington County outside Columbia. But it’s a different animal.

At the Parkers Ferry station which opened last July, the isolated fire house that’s usually manned by a lone fire-fighter means drastically reduced insurance rates for those homeowners who can afford fire insurance. But the better part of the deal is there’s a firefighter within five miles of surrounding communities who is trained to battle a blaze by himself until help arrives. That means most fires will be contained preventing a total loss of property.

With only two medic units in the district, among the firefighters’ most important roles are as first responders. Those guys do a lot of wrecks and extractions. As Charlestonians, we know about those trees on the sea islands that step out from curves onto the roads.

I watched drivers speed around me on the way back to Charleston. I understood why Matthews gives his guys maximum training to help them respond to the high number of wrecks that occur out there.

St. Paul firefighters respond to between 1,500 and 1,800 calls a year. Many of them are automobile accidents.

Matthews’ motto is adapt and overcome. It’s a good one for the elite group of ordinary people who comprise one of the county’s most gender and racially diverse fire departments. It’s a good place to work although firefighters often must do everything from cutting the grass around the station to cutting wreck victims out of cars.

One guy drives from St. George to work in the district. That’s about a 100 mile trip!

As a broke reporter, I’m envious of people who make more money than I - that means I’m envious of most people. But I don’t have a problem with using my tax dollars to give the firefighters in St. Paul more money.

I mean, how much is too much to pay the brave souls who are willing to run into harm’s way on our behalf?

Matthews said he feels insulted that his county council representative said the district’s problems are administrative. I can’t blame him. From what I saw the other day, those folks are doing a heck of a job.

I’m sure as development spreads to that area, the owners of high dollar homes will demand uninhibited fire protection and they’ll get it. It’s just too bad some Charleston County Council members are unwilling to provide fair compensation to those guys now.

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