Over the past year, the Southport Fire Department has seen many changes.
On October 1, 2015, Charles Drew was hired as its first full-time fire chief. A few weeks later, Tyler Johnson was hired full-time as deputy chief of the Southport Rescue Squad.
By November 2015, the two departments merged, and both are now known as “The Southport Fire Department”.
Initially, both Johnson and Drew were skeptical about the union. Now that a year has passed, they say things are going smoothly and the Southport Fire Department’s Fire and EMS divisions are thriving.
From ‘bad blood’ to brothers in service
When one enters the Southport Fire Department, the first thing noticed are the photos on the wall. There are three of them.
The first is a group photo of the members of the Fire division. The third is a group photo of members of the EMS division. Between those two is a photo of the officers from the divisions.
Some of the same faces appear in multiple pictures. But Drew and Johnson say that wouldn’t have happened years ago. Until the merger last year, the divide between the two groups was more than just space.
“We worked together on emergency scenes and stuff, but we really didn’t interact with each other,” Drew said. “It was two separate entities.
“Even though there were years where our buildings were side-by-side, they had their meetings, we had our meetings. They had their training, we had our training. They had their equipment, we had our equipment. Everything was separate. There was a distinct separation between the departments.”
“Yes, there was,” Johnson agreed with a chuckle.
According to Drew and Johnson, there was some animosity between the two departments.
“Let’s just say this: We worked well together on emergency scenes, but other than that, there was really bad blood between the departments,” Drew said.
“Once the call cleared (any cooperation) was over,” Johnson reiterated.
Drew says at one point, there was so much conflict the fire department stipulated in its bylaws that no member of the fire department could also serve with the rescue squad.
“That’s how bad it had gotten,” Drew said.
When Drew joined the fire department in 1991 that provision was already in the bylaws.
“That was one of the first things that I saw wrong with emergency services in Southport,” Drew said. “And I set out right then as a new member of the fire department to get that changed.”
He said it took about five or six years to get enough support to make the change. But even after the stipulation was removed, there still seemed to be a division between the two groups.
When talk of merging the two departments began last year, both Johnson and Drew had their concerns.
“There was some fear on both sides,” Drew said.
Fears ranged from brewing a new conflict between the members to having members quit the departments.
But none of that occurred. In fact, both sides seemed to support the change.
Johnson and Drew led meetings to get feedback from their members.
“Pretty much everyone supported it, which really surprised me,” Johnson said.
Drew had to bring up the subject in one of his first meetings after being hired as the full-time fire chief.
“I precipitated the meeting by talking about the ‘Charleston Nine Fire’, where nine firefighters in Charleston, South Carolina, were killed,” he said. “When I started the meeting that night, I talked about how the nine firefighters were killed because the fire department refused change. They did everything right, but they did not want change.”
He then segued into how change could be positive, and told the membership about the impending merger.
“And I was very shocked,” he said. “The first people that spoke up were some of my senior fire department members that had been here over 30 years. They were the ones I was worried about, and they were the first ones who spoke up and said, ‘It’s time to do this.’”
Johnson believes both sides felt it was time to end the division.
“If we weren’t on call, it was like there was a wall 100 feet high,” he said.
Since the merger, the two groups have made great strides and now work as a cohesive unit.
“We’ve had very few bumps in the road since then,” Drew said. “Things have gone very, very well.”
“Better than we expected it to go,” Johnson agreed.
and future plans
Drew and Johnson are proud of all the Southport Fire Department has accomplished in the last year.
Not only have they navigated changes, but they also have worked to find ways to save money and provide a better service to the citizens.
“Right before we merged, the city was getting ready to do add-on to the EMS station (on Nash Street), and when we merged, that changed,” Drew said.
While the building did receive some upgrades, maintaining two separate departments would have resulted in significant additions, such as office space and living quarters for the volunteers in order to provide night coverage.
“It was going to be a $500,000 project, and I think we kept it under $75,000,” Johnson said.
Johnson said members of the EMS division appreciate their new home at Southport Fire Headquarters, located on North Howe Street across from Dosher Memorial Hospital.
“Going from down there (Nash Street) to up here and having sleeping quarters—they used to sleep on the couches down there every night—it made a huge difference,” he said.
EMS functions like the fire department in that it is staffed by volunteers. Drew and Johnson and the only two paid employees. All others receive stipends for answering calls.
For the EMS members, having an improved facility has resulted in a greater number of volunteers during the night-time hours.
“Our night-time coverage immediately got a whole lot better just due to the better facility,” Johnson said.
The department is also now offering joint training sessions, allowing the members to cross-train if they wish.
While the Fire and EMS divisions still conduct separate meetings, they hold joint meetings and training sessions quarterly.
“We interact with each other now on a daily basis—Fire and EMS,” Drew noted.
“There’s a lot of the EMS people who’ve become friends with the Fire people,” Johnson said. “It’s good to see—and I hate to use Facebook—but looking on Facebook, you see that on the weekends some of the EMS people are going out to dinner with some of the Fire people, and they’re posting pictures. That didn’t use to be the case at all. Now, there’s tons of friendships between them.”
The two chiefs say that has improved morale throughout the department, and now they work together on fundraisers and events.
“We provide a better service,” Johnson said.
Even though the department achieved a lot in a short time, Drew and Johnson are already thinking about what’s next.
Currently they are working to establish a Water Rescue division. Drew said they were able to acquire a rescue boat from the Town of Sunset Beach at a recent auction. The boat was valued at $25,000, but the department purchased it for $5,000.
“We’re going to be able to launch that program in 2017,” he said.
A new substation is also in the works along the Long Beach Road corridor. The department is in the process of upgrading an old car wash in that area that will serve as its temporary substation. But Drew is continuing to investigate the possibility of constructing a new building.
The lease on the old car wash facility took effect October 1, and Drew said he hopes it will become operational mid-November.
The department also hopes to increase its number of non-emergency transports. It recently received clearance from Brunswick County to perform non-emergency transports, which helps to increase revenue.
“I would like to see us get a non-emergency transport unit,” Drew said. “We’re going to try to get some kind of a donation on that.”
“Once we get that substation built (on Long Beach Road), I’d like to put that non-emergency truck out there and have it run back-up 911 calls too,” Johnson said. “It can run non-emergencies throughout the day, and then when we get a second EMS call, it could pick that up as well.”
The department is also working to boost membership. Currently, there are about 90 members on the combined EMS and Fire roster. Each department has space for 50 members, so they would like to see membership around 100.
“The way I look at it is the more people we have on the roster, the more people we have to respond to calls,” Drew said.
Johnson noted that having the Fire division there to assist in responding to calls has been a big help, as the number of calls has increased to nearly 2,000 a year.
“We’ve been increasing by about 100 calls every year,” Johnson said.
but the name remains
Although Drew and Johnson say “everything” has changed during the last year, one thing will remain constant—the department’s name.
Even with the presence of the EMS division, Drew said it will continue to be known as “The Southport Fire Department.”
He gave two reasons for that: history, and the current trend in emergency services.
“The biggest reason that we have not changed the name is that we were established in 1893, and there’s historical significance,” Drew said.
He added that it also keeps officials from having to re-draft the charter and bylaws.
“We didn’t want to do that,” he said. “So, that’s basically why we kept that name.”
He noted that it’s also an industry trend to have the fire department encompass EMS services.
“If you go up North, you don’t have rescue squads or EMS units,” he said. “You have fire departments and the function of the fire department is rescue or EMS, medical and extrication.
Johnson said a good example of that is the New York City department, well known as F.D.N.Y.
“I think rescue squads were really a Southern thing,” Drew said.
While the name hasn’t changed, the chief and deputy chief agree that the service has, and they say it’s only gotten better.
“I think whether you join Fire or EMS, you’re joining to help people, and that’s the goal—to volunteer to help people,” Drew said. “So, I think we’ve really got that focus now.”