Message from Fire Chief Wyatt Coleman
The West Columbia Fire Department is possibly the oldest department in the city. It was first formed around the turn of the 20th century. According to Henry Anderson, Fire Chief from 1966 to 1975 and a volunteer for many years before becoming chief, the first fire station was located at the intersection of Norfolk Street and a back alley behind Mr. Red Peake’s house. The station consisted of a human-pulled hand pump. Fire equipment was moved to new quarters in 1908 when the City built a new building in the 400 block of Center Street that also housed City Hall. The Police Department and jail were later located in a building next door. As with most small towns during this time, the firefighters were all volunteers. They were alerted to a fire by use of sirens mounted on buildings or utility poles throughout the city. When the sirens sounded, the men would leave their homes and/or jobs, go to the fire station to get the truck, (often having to push it up the hill and let it roll back to get it started), and then respond. Since the vast majority of the early residents worked at Mt. Vernon Mills, an alarm was mounted at the mill to alert workers. In 1960, the city built a new city complex that housed City Hall, the Police Department, and the Fire Department. At this time, volunteers still comprised the firefighting force. In 1964, City Council employed the first full time firefighters. Volunteer firefighters were still used to supplement the full time forces and the sirens were still used to alert volunteers and off-duty full time employees. This notification method eventually changed to a paging system operated by the department. In 1979, the department moved into its current location. The station on Center Street was designed to hold four pieces of apparatus, but was packed with six. The new station was designed to hold all of the current equipment with room for growth. In 1980, the city moved from a combination department to a total career department with the hiring of six full-time personnel, bringing the staff to a total of twenty-one. Staffing now consists of twenty-four people.
The current makeup of the department is as follows:
Battalion Chief of Operations
Battalion Chief of Operations
3 Senior Engineers
3 Engineer I
3 Firefighter III
9 Firefighter II
The Chief, Battalion Chief, and the Fire Marshal work 40-hour weeks. The remainder of the staff is split evenly into three shifts that work every 3rd day. Tours of duty are 24 ¼ hours with the overlapping ¼ hour being used for the exchange of information. Minimum staffing is six men per day which allows for annual leave, sick leave, and time away for training.
Our department is responsible for the delivery of fire services for the City of West Columbia and for contracted areas of Lexington County. In total, this area is approximately six square miles and about 18,000 people.
The services that fire departments offer now have changed considerably since the volunteer days of long ago. In the early days, firefighters were only expected to fight fires as they occurred. West Columbia did this and also operated a rescue squad. The rescue squad responded to calls such as breathing difficulties and heart attacks. They also responded to calls for body recovery after someone had drowned. Now, firefighters have to be more well-rounded in their abilities. EMS calls represent approximately 50-60 percent of the incidents to which we respond. We offer first responder service to everyone in our coverage area as well as Swift Water Rescue. The first responder service serves to assist the ambulance service when needed and offers our citizens quick response in case of a medical need. To meet this need, all suppression personnel are required to complete a first responder course and several have completed EMT training. Also, each fire fighter must complete a mandatory 240 hours of training each year.
The equipment that we use to deliver these services has also changed and increased as technology improved and equipment has been added. The truck that most of the older residents remember as the first was a 1925 Reo. Equipment on that truck was minimal at best, consisting mostly of a hose, a pump, ladders, coats and helmets for the men to wear. It even had an open cab that exposed the driver and passenger to whatever the weather happened to be. While the trucks purchased during the 1950s had enclosed cabs, they did not have heaters. Even in the 1960s, the trucks required the firefighters to ride on the rear step, which was dangerous. Trucks today have ladders, breathing apparatuses, a variety of hose sizes, automatic transmissions and enclosed cabs. The enclosed cabs protect all occupants from weather conditions and the heat and air conditioning provided helps the firefighters recover more quickly from fires and get prepared for the next ones. We currently have three engines, one ladder, one support unit, one brush truck, one pickup, and three administrative vehicles. Our newest ladder truck is a 2010 Pierce Contender.
A lot of our efforts in recent years have been geared to educating the public to prevent fires. We are doing this through a variety of ways. Speaking to civic groups, church groups, and children’s activities have been successful in reducing the number of serious fires in our area. We have a variety of classes that are provided to the public such as: puppet shows, that have been well received and present the fire safety messages in a manner that people of all ages enjoy, a smoke detector program, in which we place smoke detectors, at no charge, in the homes of people that otherwise would not be able to obtain them, and fire extinguisher classes. The smoke detector program is funded through the sale of the blue address signs that are visible throughout the city.