Horry County officials hope that nearly $1 million in grant money will make it easier to grow the department’s volunteer base.
Brian VanAernem, spokesman for Horry County Fire Rescue, said the $975,000 federal grant the county received in March will be spread over four years. The money will pay for firefighting gear as well as station gear – such as T-shirts – and required physicals for about 25 volunteers each year.
“It’s huge,” said Capt. Fred DeAngelis, a volunteer who leads the all-volunteer station on International Drive in Carolina Forest. “The gear alone to fit a firefighter is about $1,800.”
Volunteers, such as Tommy Gunn, who is in training now and said he hopes to becoming a career firefighter after his experience as a volunteer, currently must wear old, mismatched gear during training sessions. Should Gunn successfully complete training, Horry County Fire Rescue will need to provide a uniform for him.
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Volunteers don’t pay for the training, the physical – which costs about $300 – or the uniforms, DeAngelis said.
He said that means maintaining high volunteer numbers can be costly, and the grant will relieve some financial burden off the department.
DeAngelis and Capt. Craig Richardson, who volunteers and covers a pair of stations near Coastal Carolina University that are staffed by a mix of career and volunteer firefighters, said the number of volunteers has nearly doubled since 2013.
VanAernem said Horry County fire has about 370 volunteers, about 200 of which are fully trained firefighters. Others are support staff and emergency medical technicians.
Horry County had struggled to maintain volunteers for several years, but DeAngelis said that growing the base and strengthening morale has improved under the department’s new Chief Fred Crosby.
DeAngelis said Crosby’s addition of support staff volunteers, which includes people wanting to help in the office and with paperwork, is one reason the numbers have improved. He said the toughest part about recruiting volunteers is getting them to finish training because it is challenging and can take six to eight months.
VanAernem said volunteers are important across the county because the additional personnel leads to quicker response times and can help ease staffing complications when career firefighters are out with illnesses or on vacation.
He said it’s also helpful to have greater volunteer numbers during big events such as the Windsor Green fire in 2013 and the Carolina Forest Wild Fire in 2009. In the rural areas, VanAernem said it’s common for stations to rely solely on volunteers.
Money to train and outfit volunteers was part of the department’s budget before the grant was secured in March.
VanAernem said the money will be reallocated, but he wasn’t sure how it would be used. In four years, if another grant is not available, VanAernem said he expects the costs to be worked back into the budget.