St. Paul’s firefighter shortage spurs community meeting

St. Paul’s Fire District has too few firefighters because of low pay, critics say.

HOLLYWOOD — Both those inside and outside the St. Paul’s Fire Department voiced worries Wednesday that the rural department is dangerously understaffed.

“We don’t have a guarantee that any more than one firefighter will be able to respond at any given time,” said Mark Peper, a resident of the Plantation at Stono Ferry.

About a half-dozen people, including political candidates, community activists and firefighters, spoke at a news conference called to focus attention on the issue. They said they will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Fire Station 1, 6488 Highway 162, to explore solutions.

The St. Paul’s Fire District, which has a $5.4 million budget, asked Charleston County for $1.5 million in assistance in December. Three County Council members studied the situation but made no recommendations last week, said county spokesman Shawn Smetana.

The district provides fire protection for a sprawling 460-square-mile area that ranges from Ravenel to Edisto Island to Parkers Ferry and serves both affluent and poor neighborhoods. It has nine stations and 68 employees.

Fire department turnover is a problem because of low pay. Many firefighters earn $9.72 per hour, said Kiva Sanders, the fire district administrative manager.

“It’s so difficult to retain firefighters,” she said.

The department responded to about 2,000 calls last year. Some 90 percent of them were medical-related, she said.

Lt. Brian Mitchum said he makes $13.10 hourly after nearly 10 years with St. Paul’s. He was the only firefighter on duty Wednesday at the Stono Ferry station.

“It does get scary when you are by yourself. We’re kind of trained to it by now,” he said.