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MONCKS CORNER — Whitesville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tim Stephenson investigated a house fire last year in rural Berkeley County and came to this conclusion: “Sometimes, stuff burns down.”The many issues that surrounded the blaze — which occurred just before 9 p.m. on a Saturday in January 2017 — underscore problems with much of the fire service in unincorporated Berkeley County, where many say homeowners pay high rates for inadequate service that leaves them vulnerable.The Skyrocket Lane ho...
MONCKS CORNER — Whitesville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tim Stephenson investigated a house fire last year in rural Berkeley County and came to this conclusion: “Sometimes, stuff burns down.”
The many issues that surrounded the blaze — which occurred just before 9 p.m. on a Saturday in January 2017 — underscore problems with much of the fire service in unincorporated Berkeley County, where many say homeowners pay high rates for inadequate service that leaves them vulnerable.
The Skyrocket Lane house was less than half a mile from the volunteer Pineville-Russellville Fire Department, but it still took about 14 minutes for the department to respond, Stephenson said. Crews from St. Stephen and Bonneau were also on scene.
“Understand that this is a volunteer fire service,” Stephenson said in his report to council in March. “There aren’t just people standing around at the fire house. Those guys come from home, get their gear on and grab the apparatus and then respond to the scene. ”
The initial call reported a car on fire in the garage. When firefighters arrived, the house was ablaze.
Complicating the issue, poor radio transmissions in the rural upper county made communication difficult.
Jerome Smalls, former chief of the department, was the first firefighter on the scene.
He responded in a brush truck instead of his vehicle, which was broken down. His vehicle couldn’t be repaired due to a lack of funding because of an ongoing investigation into the department. It turned out to be a good thing that Smalls was not in his Crown Victoria because the brush truck carried about 300 gallons of water that he used to fight the flames.
Stephenson concluded in his investigation that such a fire could have happened in the jurisdiction of any of Berkeley’s 25 volunteer fire departments.
“The guys did everything they needed to do to put the fire out,” he said at the time.
The incident occurred about four months before County Council voted to pay New York-based Manitou Inc. $54,175 to prepare a new report on improving the county’s fire service. Some Berkeley officials had talked for years about studying these departments, which act as independent contractors.
“The county is growing, and rural is no longer rural in some areas,” said Councilman Ken Gunn. “The point of the study is to better prepare Berkeley County. People are moving in, and they expect better services.”
For instance, residents in the Cane Bay Plantation mega-development off U.S. Highway 176, weary of high insurance rates and worried about their distance from the Whitesville department, have taken matters into their own hands to build a station in their neighborhood.
Residents have circulated a petition to create a special tax district, helped secure a $3 million rural development loan from U.S. Department of Agriculture and spearheaded several fundraising efforts.
They hope to break ground in the spring on the new station, which will be manned around the clock.
On Monday, Manitou representatives presented their findings to council’s Justice and Public Safety Committee. It said the county’s rural fire departments are plagued by bad record keeping, lack of training, antiquated equipment, deteriorating fire stations, lack of volunteers and poor funding.
The 141-page report lists about 35 recommendations, including merging some smaller departments and more oversight from the county.
But the committee tabled any action, noting that only 11 of the county’s 25 departments provided all of the records Manitou sought.
Macedonia, Forty-One and Pineville-Russellville departments did not respond to the survey at all, and 11 others either did not respond or provided insufficient details about their training programs and Insurance Service Office ratings, which determine homeowners’ fire insurance rates.
“Until the county receives a complete fire study, we cannot act on any recommendations,” said Councilman Tommy Newell, chairman of the committee. “If a fire department chose not to assist in releasing data for the study, they are in breach of contract with the county. I hope those fire departments will supply the data. It’s not to their benefit to withhold data critical for the study.”
The study also does not include how much debt the departments are carrying, council members said.
“We asked for specific things,” said Gunn, who chaired the Justice and Public Safety committee before Newell. “Five years ago, the combined rural fire departments were over $10 million in debt. I don’t know if that number has gone up, down, or stayed the same since then, and I specifically asked for that information.”
Stephenson said Tuesday he was disappointed at council’s response to the study.
“I understand that some of the data was missing, but I don’t think that it takes away from the overall meaning of the study itself,” he said. “The basis for moving forward is there, and I hope we don’t put this plan off too long.”
He said there was “100 percent buy-in” from the fire chiefs, and he believes that they turned over what information they had. But he noted that the study found a deficiency in record-keeping.
“A lot of this stuff is still done on legal pads,” he said. “Some of the departments don’t even have computers.”
At issue is what the county might do to provide them further support. The departments currently are funded largely by a $75 fire fee paid by property owners in unincorporated areas. The fee, which generates $4.2 million annually, was increased by $5 in 2015.
That sum is not enough to fund all of the departments’ needs in the rapidly growing county, leading Supervisor Bill Peagler to suggest a property tax charge instead of a flat fee.
“We are all looking for better fire protection,” Stephenson said. “It has to come with a cost, so hopefully community residents are willing to pay.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713. Follow her on Twitter @brindge.
Shirley Berardo has waited more than a decade for a new fire station in Cane Bay Plantation, but soon it will be a reality.Berardo led a private fundraising effort to finally get the firehouse necessary supplies that Berkeley County hasn’t funded. On Sunday, the Firehouse at Cane Bay Fundraising Committee held a festival that included face painting and snow cones.With ticket sales and donations, the group raised a little more than $11,000 for the station in one day. So far, it has collected nearly $50,000 of the $75,000 g...
Shirley Berardo has waited more than a decade for a new fire station in Cane Bay Plantation, but soon it will be a reality.
Berardo led a private fundraising effort to finally get the firehouse necessary supplies that Berkeley County hasn’t funded. On Sunday, the Firehouse at Cane Bay Fundraising Committee held a festival that included face painting and snow cones.
With ticket sales and donations, the group raised a little more than $11,000 for the station in one day. So far, it has collected nearly $50,000 of the $75,000 goal.
“We couldn’t get anyone to help,” Berardo said. “We all decided this is what we wanted to do, so we made it happen.”
Cane Bay, nestled in Berkeley County, has seen massive population growth over the past 15 years and has become one of the fastest growing areas in South Carolina. But the nearest fire stations are from three to eight miles away, which has caused residents to worry about community safety as well as increased insurance premiums.
Cane Bay is served by the Whitesville Rural Volunteer Fire Department, which has stations on Gants Road and Sunview Avenue. Response times to the neighborhood is around 10 minutes.
But residents are worried, especially with the rapid growth of the community. Three schools are now in the Cane Bay community and Berardo is worried that so many residents are moving in to the development without a fire station close at hand.
Tom Fernandez, a lawyer and Cane Bay resident, told The Post and Courier that the lack of a firehouse is an example of how the county can’t keep up with how fast the region is expanding.
“The population growth in Cane Bay is explosive,” Fernandez said. “Unfortunately, the infrastructure has not kept up with the population growth. The greatest need is those emergency services in close proximity to thousands of residents.”
Fernandez even donated a drone to the department last week in hopes that they could use it for examining wood fires and for search and rescue missions.
Cane Bay started taking shape in 2005 on a 4,500-acre tract off U.S. Highway 176. Since then, Berkeley County has seen a surge of population growth.
More than 8,000 people moved to the area between mid-2015 and mid-2016, boosting the total population to more than 210,000, according to census figures. While the houses grew, so did the potential risk of fire.
In 2017, panicked residents unsuccessfully attempted to create a special tax district to pay for the fire district. On the petition to create the district it said, “There is insufficient fire protection for the amount of residents who live in the Cane Bay Plantation community.”
The Whitesville department eventually secured a $3 million rural development loan in 2017 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will require $150,000 annual payments.
But that government loan will also stretch the department thin. The annual budget for Whitesville’s fire crew is about $500,000, meaning the loan payment will take up 30 percent of that budget.
To subsidize the cost, the Firehouse at Cane Bay Fundraising Committee has gotten creative — quilt auctions, chili cook-offs and coupon book sales. The money will go toward fire equipment, gear and uniforms, Berardo said.
A construction date hasn’t been announced but Berardo anticipated they will break ground this year. The station will be located on Cane Bay Boulevard, just north of the Del Webb community. It will also house an EMS office as well as a satellite office for the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve worked on this project a good year and a half or more,” Berardo said. “It’s nice to do something that will have a positive impact on everyone.”
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) - Berkeley County volunteer firefighters said on Wednesday they are concerned about the way a Berkeley County Fire Tax Advisory Board is being controlled."Our issue isn't with accountability of the funds," said Tim Stephenson, fire chief for Whitesville Fire Department. "Our issue is with the changes that have been made without anybody's approval, just one guy making suggestions to a board that he controls."On Tuesday, dozens of volunteer firefighters showed up to the Berkeley Co...
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) - Berkeley County volunteer firefighters said on Wednesday they are concerned about the way a Berkeley County Fire Tax Advisory Board is being controlled.
"Our issue isn't with accountability of the funds," said Tim Stephenson, fire chief for Whitesville Fire Department. "Our issue is with the changes that have been made without anybody's approval, just one guy making suggestions to a board that he controls."
On Tuesday, dozens of volunteer firefighters showed up to the Berkeley County Council meeting. The group presented a two-page letter which addressed changes to funding requests through pool fund.
Stephenson says until about six months ago, fire chiefs were able to use money from the Pooled Fire Fees Reserve Fund for federal grant matching fees.
He says they were recently told they could no longer do that.
"They recently approved one individuals' department for a matching grant which was Jamestown," said Stephenson. "After they approved that, the man was very specific in saying, 'Don't ever request pool fund money again for a matching grant.'"
The man Stephenson was referring to was Ken Gunn, councilman for Berkeley County and chairman of the Public Safety committee.
Gunn was not available for an on-camera interview but spoke to ABC News 4 over the phone after County Supervisor Dan Davis responded publicly to Gunn's comments from the previous night.
Davis said in an email that he was troubled by what Gunn had said after Tuesday night's meeting. He said the information Gunn provided was "categorically untrue."
Davis also included a PDF detailing each year's fire department fund spending records.
"Copies of the minutes can be requested from the clerk to council. Payments were made by the Finance Department, and copies of checks can be provided, unless they have been already destroyed in accordance with the county's retention schedule policy," Davis said in the email.
He also called on Gunn to contact ABC News 4 and clarify his statements.
"Council has no restrictions on what you can apply for in the pool fund money," Gunn said. "None whatsoever."
When asked if there were restrictions on what departments would be approved for, Gunn said: "Not that I'm aware of."
In an interview following Tuesday's county council meeting, Gunn said the county "couldn't find any record of how the fund was distributed prior to 2014."
On Wednesday, Gunn retracted his statement saying he meant the county didn't have the original application requests nor meeting minutes documenting when each distribution was approved.
Gunn says a meeting will be held between Berkeley County council and the Fire Chief's Association sometime within the next two weeks.
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. – Berkeley County School District board members made several administrative appointments during Monday night’s board meeting.New administrators were joined by family, friends and colleagues as they were recognized during the board meeting; all appointments passed unanimously by board members.Marissa Watson was named principal of Cane Bay Elementary School, where she has served as the interim principal since last year. Watson joined BCSD in 2002 as a classroom teacher at Westview Primary. She ha...
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. – Berkeley County School District board members made several administrative appointments during Monday night’s board meeting.
New administrators were joined by family, friends and colleagues as they were recognized during the board meeting; all appointments passed unanimously by board members.
Marissa Watson was named principal of Cane Bay Elementary School, where she has served as the interim principal since last year. Watson joined BCSD in 2002 as a classroom teacher at Westview Primary. She has also taught at Westview Elementary, Whitesville Elementary and Boulder Bluff Elementary. She became an assistant principal at Cane Bay Elementary in 2014. She also attended schools in Berkeley County growing up.
According to the school district, Taylor Bradley will take on the role of Westview Middle’s new principal this upcoming school year following Sharon Perry’s retirement. He has worked in education for almost 15 years – all of it in Berkeley County. Bradley started his educational career at Berkeley Middle teaching Intro to Law Education. He continued teaching at Berkeley Middle for six years, teaching combinations of English and social studies. He then moved to Cane Bay Middle and taught seventh grade social studies for two years before becoming an administrator at Cane Bay High. Bradley joined the Berkeley High staff in 2021 as an assistant principal.
Brandon Gantt will take over as principal of Whitesville Elementary following Principal Katie Tai’s retirement, BCSD confirmed. Gant began his career as a reading interventionist in Newberry, South Carolina in 2011 before transitioning to classroom teacher at Newberry Elementary. He went on to teach third grade in Richland County School District One and then moved to Lexington-Richland District Five to teach fifth grade in 2015. He filled elementary and middle school assistant principal roles between 2016 and 2020 before being named Lexington County School District One’s Employee Development Coordinator in 2021.
William Wilson will lead Goose Creek High’s administrative team this upcoming school year. The board voted in February to appoint Principal Shameka Washington as the new Executive Director of Leadership & School Support for secondary schools within BCSD’s administrative services department, starting in June. Wilson has served as Gregg Middle’s principal in Dorchester District 2 since 2015. He previously served as assistant principal at Summerville High and Ashley Ridge High.
Mallory Kubisz is also joining the Goose Creek High administrative team as an assistant principal. She joined the Philip Simmons High staff in 2017, teaching world history, world geography, AP Human Geography and AP U.S. History. She has served as the school’s academy coach and testing coordinator since 2019, and has also coached varsity volleyball and varsity softball.
The contracts for the administrators named above begin in July, according to BCSD.
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) — Plans for a new fire department in Cane Bay are moving forward with the announcement of a general contractor for the project.The department secured a $3 million United States Department of Agriculture to build the station. The preliminary total cost is $3.3 million."The Whitesville Rural Volunteer Fire Department is excited to announce that Mashburn Construction has been selected as the General Contractor for the new fire station being built in Cane Bay. This is an important step in the...
BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) — Plans for a new fire department in Cane Bay are moving forward with the announcement of a general contractor for the project.
The department secured a $3 million United States Department of Agriculture to build the station. The preliminary total cost is $3.3 million.
"The Whitesville Rural Volunteer Fire Department is excited to announce that Mashburn Construction has been selected as the General Contractor for the new fire station being built in Cane Bay. This is an important step in the progress of our
new station, primarily because before this point it was impossible to answer the question everyone wants to know the answer to—when will the new station be completed," the department states.
Mashburn Construction will be working with the Whitesville Rural Volunteer Fire Department in the following weeks to announce a formal groundbreaking ceremony.
Mashburn Construction have experience building facilities for the public safety community, including the Surfside Beach Fire Department, the Lexington County 911 Communications Center, Florence Fire Station #5 and Isle of Palms Public Safety building.
The timeline for milestones on the new fire station in the Cane Bay community show the project has been in the works for over two years:
May 5, 2015 - The Whitesville Fire Department entered into a contract with Cane Bay Lakes LLC to provide fire protection for the Cane Bay area.
September 28, 2015 - The Whitesville Fire Department entered into a contract with Thomas & Hutton to provide Civil Engineering Services.
May 10. 2016 - Mr Ben Gramling donated the property for the new station to the Whitesville Fire Department which was valued at $410,000.
August, 31 2016 - The department met with Mrs Nickie Toomes from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development to discuss a USDA Loan.
February 21, 2017 - GR Gray Construction donated their services to clear the land for the new station which was valued at more than $5,000.
June 23, 2017 - The Whitesville Fire Department entered into a contract with Pazdan/McMillian/Smith for the architectural design of the new fire station.
August 11, 2017 - The Whitesville Fire Department submitted the loan to the USDA in the amount of $3 million dollars.
October 16, 2017 - The Department of Agriculture approves the USDA Loan in the amount of $3 million.
February 16, 2018 - The Whitesville Fire Department contracts CresCom Bank for the Construction Loan.
April 3, 2018 - The plans for the new station were approved by the State and Berkeley County building Officials.
July 23, 2018 - CresCom approves the Construction Loan in the amount of 1.5 million dollars.
July 25, 2018 - The bids for the General Contractor were accepted beginning the review process.
August 27, 2018 - The Whitesville Fire Department awards the contract to Mashburn
About Whitesville Rural Fire Rescue
The Whitesville Fire Department was formed in 1967 and has protected the Whitesville Fire District for 50-years without interruption in service. It became a 501(c)(3) incorporation in 1985. It currently staffs two fire stations with 52 volunteers and 3 Engines, a 105-foot Ladder Truck, a 100-foot Tower Truck, an Advanced Life Support Quick Response Vehicle, two Chief Officer Vehicles, a Brush Truck, two service trucks, one Heavy Rescue Truck, and one apparatus maintenance vehicle.
The district is just under 50 square miles and includes portions of the Town of Moncks Corner. The department also contracts with the Town of Moncks Corner to protect portions of Highway 52 and the associated subdivisions along this highway.