The City of Isle of Palms, South Carolina, has been without a fire chief for more than eight months, a situation that has damaged morale among fire fighters and continues to threaten fire department operations.
Isle of Palms Local 3967 says the city has thoroughly botched efforts to find a new fire chief, ignoring qualified candidates and offering the position to others who ultimately declined the job offer. Instead, the city has temporarily placed the fire department under the control of the chief of police.
Local 3967 President Pete Gray says the affiliate’s efforts to communicate with the mayor and city administrator on hiring a new fire chief have fallen on deaf ears. “They just continue to disregard our input and refuse to meet with us,” he says.
At a press conference outside the Isle of Palms Fire Station, Local 3967 members made the public aware of their concerns that the long period without effective leadership may prompt professional fire fighters with years of experience to leave for other opportunities.
Former Fire Chief Ann Graham retired in December of 2020. Soon after, the Isle of Palms City Council received more than 70 applications for the job, many of them candidates from within the fire department with a decade or more of fire service experience. One internal candidate included in his application letters of recommendation from 28 Isle of Palms fire fighters.
According to Gray, the city council whittled the pool of candidates down to four, offering the position to two, both of whom turned it down. In March of this year, the city tabled efforts to hire a new chief altogether and instead placed the fire department under the control of Police Chief Kevin Cornett on an interim basis.
“This whole process has been a complete failure,” Gray says. “No one involved in the hiring process has any experience in the fire service and all have been sitting there sifting through resumes.” He notes that Cornett, having never served as a fire fighter, lacks the education and experience needed to lead the fire department.
Isle of Palms fire fighters and some on the nine-member city council are frustrated with the poorly executed search for a new fire chief. “We need to move forward,” Council member Ryan Buckhannon said during the press conference across the street from the Isle of Palms fire station. “The morale is at the lowest it’s been in the department for a long time.” Buckhannon agrees the city should hire a new fire chief from within the fire department.
Also speaking at the press conference was William Pesature, vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina. “This is a big safety concern. These people across the street are here to do a dangerous job. Somebody should be put in charge who has done what they have done, learned the job from the beginning and worked their way up the system,” he said.
Gray says Local 3967, with the assistance of the Professional Fire Fighters of South Carolina and the IAFF, will continue to press their case with city leaders. Local 3967, however, is looking ahead to citywide elections in November for mayoral and city council seats as an opportunity to elect lawmakers who will listen to the city’s professional fire fighters when it comes to public safety.