As with many aspects of government in South Carolina, the delivery of fire protection services in Beaufort County is a confusing mixture of differently created departments and differing routes to accountability.
Three of eight fire jurisdictions are county creations, and officials are moving to give the county administrator the final say in hiring fire chiefs. The change affects the Bluffton Township, Daufuskie Island and Sheldon fire districts.
Fire district commissioners, who are appointed by County Council, would vet candidates and forward a list of finalists to the county administrator. The administrator would have the authority to hire the chief after consulting with the commission. The commissioners would still conduct annual reviews of the chiefs, and the evaluations would go to the administrator to determine "promotion, demotion and termination."
That's a lot of fingerprints on a single employee's job performance evaluation.
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County attorney Josh Gruber says the proposed changes to the fire districts' charters would bring uniformity to all three agencies and make clear that personnel decisions about the chief are subject to the county administrator's approval. The administrator, in turn, is accountable to County Council, whose members appoint the fire district commissioners and sign off on the districts' budgets and property tax rates.
But it also could add confusion to an already confusing accountability issue. Who ultimately is held responsible for a fire chief's performance? The county administrator or the commission who helped select him and oversee district operations and evaluate his performance? It's an opportunity for finger-pointing should something go wrong.
A long-term question should be asked and answered: Are we delivering fire protection services in the most effective and efficient way possible?
In 2007, a dispute came up over severance pay to a departing chief at the Bluffton Township Fire District, who resigned amid concerns about overspending. An attorney hired by the district and the commission went behind closed doors to discuss severance pay for the fire chief after a county-hired attorney had already weighed in that severance pay wasn't appropriate. The commission later followed the county attorney's advice. There were also concerns about whether commissioners had followed the state's open meetings law.
County officials said then that they wanted to look at how this district and other fire districts in the county operate.
A 2011 study of the county's emergency medical and fire services in the county said it would make sense to consolidate fire and emergency medical services if the county's fire jurisdictions were combined into one agency.
"... a fire-based EMS system is not recommended for Beaufort County because there are currently eight fire jurisdictions with separate capabilities, funding, and, in some cases, separate medical protocols."
That assessment raises all sorts of questions about the delivery of critical services in Beaufort County.
The centralized hiring and firing of chiefs might be a good step, but it is only the beginning of a discussion that's long overdue.