MANNING - There were nine smiling faces when they saw their official helmets and bunker gear for the first time at the Sept. 19 Clarendon County Fire Department's Recruit Graduation Ceremony.
Six short months ago, firefighter recruits James C. Bagnal, Brittani N. Bensoussan, J. Matt Bradshaw, Chancely C. Coker, Courtney Atkinson, Joshua M. Holladay, Crystal M. Miller, John L. Weeks and Chance T. Welch began their trek to becoming a volunteer firefighter with the Clarendon County Fire Department. Their journey took more than 210 training hours of classroom and structural skills tests before they could don the official bunker gear and become firefighters certified to level Firefighter 1 and qualified for interior structure fires as well as grass, woods and automobile fires.
Miller is a paramedic. Why become a volunteer firefighter?
"To be a certified firefighter has always been appealing to me," she said the day after the ceremony. "Emergency Medical Services is all I know. I've been living and breathing this life for 20 years now."
Miller said she's wanted to join the fire department with her brother a couple of years ago, but with her busy schedule as a paramedic, she couldn't find the time.
"(My brother) went on to become certified and serve the citizens of Clarendon County," she added. "I was so proud of him and disappointed that things didn't work out for me. God has his timing. Just a few months back, two friends and co-workers decided they would like to take on the challenge of joining the fire service becoming firefighters. Why not? It's all about serving the people, and we do that every day with EMS."
"I love the people of Clarendon County, and serving the people in emergency services is in my blood," she added. "When we are out there in the field, we work alongside of the guys in the fire service and consider them family. We are a team out there every day serving the people. I like a challenge, and I like being a part of a team. Working together EMS and fire only makes us both stronger."
She said that when a person becomes a firefighter, it's not about the person. "It's about the people, the community and a passion to serve."
Miller also added that the lure of wearing the bunker gear was another reason she joined.
"I have always liked the idea of wearing fire gear," she said. "It's so cool looking. One other thing I've always wanted to say I'm a firefighter-paramedic just like they do on television."
Lt. Casey "Coach" Connors, Recruitment and Retention/Assistant Training Officer for the CCFD, called the newest recruits, a "fantastic group of firefighters."
"They were self-motivated, devoted and they organized themselves into their own study groups to make sure they all got through the session successfully," Connors added.
Connors said that over the course of the six months, the recruits attended classes two nights a week and occasionally on Saturday.
"These might be volunteer firefighters, but they took the same classes as the career firefighters," Connors added. "These recruits worked hard."
According to Connors, the Clarendon County Fire Department is comprised of 35 career firefighters and 119 volunteers.
"In order to serve our county and citizens, we need our volunteers," Connors said. "We are not able to do it without their manpower and resources."
Connors said to become a volunteer firefighter the individual needs to be a good fit for the department. He or she needs to be outgoing, willing to learn new tasks and show good judgement.
One year ago, the CCFD added several new positions within the volunteer structure that would allow individuals to serve without actually fighting fires, he said.
"We added new support positions," Connors said. "Their main jobs on the fire scene are to assist firefighters, fill cylinders, work the rehab scene, make sure the firefighters have water and assist with cleanup after a fire. The more folks at a fire, the faster we can get the fire knocked down. Their help aids in the amount of time we spend at the fire scene. Many hands make light work."
The new firefighters have been assigned to stations close to where they live, he said, but they aren't restricted to those stations.
"We have 16 stations around the county," Connors said. "In most of our rural areas our volunteers are usually the first person to respond. If they live in Summerton and the fire's in Manning, yes, they can come to Manning and help out.
Connors said the county has four fire stations manned by career firefighters, but those stations also rely on volunteers to assist them.
"We could not operate without our volunteers," he said.
Connors said that before the end of the year, the CCFD could have an additional 13 new firefighters.
"We just started a new class based in Turbeville," he said. "Nine individuals were beginners, and four who have some of the class hours behind them will come in toward the end.. We could have 13 graduates when the classes end on Dec. 2."
With nine new firefighters on board and 13 more possible before the end of 2017, Connors said another class will be held the first of 2018.
"We are always looking for more volunteers," he added. "Whether they're firefighters or support personnel, we could definitely use them."
Anyone interested in volunteer opportunities with the CCFD can receive training in several different areas, including support personnel, driver/operator, emergency medical responder and firefighter.
"Each individual area of responsibility would require some level of training," he added. "We do offer all the training, short of that required for emergency medical responder, in house. Please feel free to call if you have any questions."
Connors can be reached at (803) 435-4075.