By Natalie Caula Changes planned for a counseling program instituted after the Sofa Super Store blaze killed nine Charleston firefighters in 2007 has sparked concerns that service will be diminished.

The proposed changes have fueled anxiety among firefighters and their families, who worry it will mean less help for those who need it.

Charleston Fire Department Chief Karen Brack said that isn’t the case. For her, it means continuing the program in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. Among other things, she wants the city to take more advantage of insurance benefits to cover the costs of counseling and other services offered by the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.

“Any change may be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” she said.

Brack said in no way is the Firefighter Support Team going away. She met with the peer support members, the firefighters who also work as counselors for the program, and listened to their concerns in a meeting on Monday.

She said she’s using the information she was given to mold a different, more effective program.

Retirees, family members of the fallen firefighters, and firefighters who were with the department during the Sofa Super Store fire, will continue receiving the same benefits for free, according to Brack.

Firefighters who joined the department following June 18, 2007 will still receive treatment through the program, but may have to file an insurance claim. That was not done in the past, she said.

“We’re walking down the road that says ‘what do you need to continue with the process and how can we do it to get our former members and Charleston 9 members getting everything they’ve had but being good stewards of the resources were given?’” she said.

The city’s draft budget, which City Council members are expected to submit their first votes on tomorrow, includes the same amount for the firefighter support team as previous years, $346,340.

That won’t change, according to Brack. Instead, she wants to stretch that amount for other wellness programs for firefighters and hopes to do that by saving money by utilizing insurance coverage.

“We have all sorts of needs to take care of our firefighters,” Brack said.

That includes the drafting of a health and wellness program and annual physicals for firefighters. “That’s why we’re trying to recapture the funds, so were taking care of our total firefighter,” she said.

But some in the firefighting community remain nervous about the changes nonetheless. They worry that Brack’s involvement will lead to cost-cutting measures that could hurt the program and interfere with its independence. They are also concerned that requiring firefighters to submit insurance forms will compromise confidentiality and discourage them from seeking help.

Gerald Mishoe, who has led the team since its formation, declined to comment today.

Brack has been asking a lot of questions about the team in the last few months and its effectiveness. The Post and Courier has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the same data Brack received.

Brack said she found some things got overlooked, such as a pair of cell phones the Fire Department was paying for but weren’t being used. She said she felt some tweaks would help the program run more efficiently.

“I think what it does is present a picture of being able to determine that we can move to a different model and still cover the people adequately and maybe gain some efficiencies,” she said.

Brack credited the team with “tremendous progress” over the past five years and she did not fault its leaders for the program’s oversight. She said she is still talking to Mishoe about his future role in the program, but added “nothing is set in stone.”

Currently, no firefighter in the tri-county is turned away from receiving treatment. Whether or not that will change remains unseen.

“I truly can’t answer that for you because I don’t know what the parameters would involve,” Brack said.

She hopes discussions with other chiefs in the area will help other departments utilize their own insurance coverage to give their firefighters the help they need, but she said it’s all still in the works.

Read more in tomorrow’s edition of the Post and Courier.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or