Fire district weaves citizen input into future plans

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Following a car accident, personnel from Bluffton Township Fire District give ground support to a helicopter landing and paramedics from Beaufort County EMS. COURTESY BTFD

The results from the Bluffton Township Fire District's September stakeholder's meeting are now being integrated into a new strategic plan.

The stakeholders are everyone who lives within the township's district which ranges from the Broad River south to the Hilton Head Island bridge: 246 square miles with a population of approximately 60,000 people.

Creating and implementing the strategic plan is one of several steps required to gain accreditation through the Commission of Fire Accreditation International - an achievement that is a continuous process of self-examination - and is the one part that most affects service to the community.

"What [the strategic plan] does is forces us to look at every component of our organization," said District Chief John Thompson. "How we do everything, our policies, procedures, equipment, training, maintenance. It focuses on a continuous improvement model."

There are only about 300 agencies worldwide that are accredited through CFAI and each of them must maintain a certain level of proficiency in order to retain the certificate.

Initial implementation has already provided results, according to Senior Firefighter Rhett Livingston, the accreditation coordinator.

"What we are hoping for and what we are already seeing is an increase in efficiency," he said.

Some of the improvements the district is trying to make revolve around response time. New wall monitors in the stations show the same information the 9-1-1 call receivers are taking, so that when an alert goes out to the district that a call is imminent, firefighters can immediately see which station might be assigned to respond.

"Any time you can cut even a minute off of response time is a plus," Thompson said. "The return on investment on these monitors is invaluable. It's hard to put a value on somebody's life."

Another innovation is integrated into the design of the district's newest fire station on Burnt Church Road and a future house planned at New Riverside.

"The station on Burnt Church Road is what we call our prototype. The sleeping area turns right out into the engine bay," said the chief.

Thompson said most of the improvements will be in the documentation - policies and procedures. He is familiar with the process of accreditation, having been with the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue when that company went through the process.

"I think they've been reaccredited at least four times. What it does professionally is it moves the organization forward, and it keeps you looking forward. Guys stay motivated and it keeps morale up because it shows you are trying to be better," Thompson said. "That translates into improving service for the citizens."

On a checklist survey given at the stakeholders' meeting, the top three priorities for those in attendance were emergency medical services, fire suppression, and basic and technical rescue.

Each member of the BTFD is dual-certified. Firefighters complete 320 hours of training as basic recruits through the South Carolina Fire Academy, and then are sent to complete 240 hours of training to become certified as basic emergency medical technicians. Thompson said 15 firefighters also have advanced training as paramedics.

Basic rescue is being able to extricate victims of car accidents. Technical rescue training covers water, rope and building rescues.

"What people want is for us to be able to get them out of the car wreck, and get them out of flash floods and building collapses after hurricanes," said Livingston. "We go to a car junk yard in Savannah and train there. Our new recruits spend a week cutting cars and learning how to do it."

The specialized technical training covers other skills, such as those used by the water rescue specialists who went to Myrtle Beach and other areas after Hurricane Florence last fall.

In addition to the training, newer equipment enables firefighters to address modern concerns. The district recently received a brand-new Pierce 2019 Heavy Duty Rescue - a multi-purpose vehicle that will address all aspects of rescue within the district.

Among other assets, the rescue engine includes an inflatable boat that opens within a few seconds (the boat motor is also on board the vehicle). The new jaws-of-life tools have the ability to cut the latest boron metal car frames, such as the 2019 S60 Volvo, for example.

"The good thing about this accreditation process is that by bringing the public in from the start, that tells us what level of service the citizens want," said Thompson. "As we're implementing the strategic plan, there are going to be committees formed. We're going to go out into the public and get more people involved. Obviously, the fire board has input into all of that, but I want to get more of the public involved in that and see what the fire department is doing for them."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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