Horry County emergency department leaders challenged to fill openings amid dramatic increase in workload

Grand Strand

Emergency scene (Stock image/Getty)

CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) – Faced with ever-increasing workloads and calls for service, Horry County emergency leaders continue to put a priority on hiring more people to protect Grand Strand residents.

Horry County Fire Rescue had more than 7,000 calls in July, putting the department on pace for a record 70,000 calls in 2021, Chief Joseph Tanner told members of the county’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. The department answered more than 63,000 calls in 2020, he said.

“As of this morning at 8 a.m., we hit 45,000 calls,” he said. “We’re now expecting to hit 70,000-plus calls this year.”

HCFR currently has about 500 responders and 200 volunteers, and Tanner said the department hopes to have 50 new responders in training by Nov. 1.

Nearly 300 people have applied for jobs during the first two weeks of the current application period. Once that period closes on Aug. 31, Tanner said the department will begin the testing and interview process on Sept. 14. New hires will graduate and begin working at fire stations across the county in March, he said.

Hiring and training new officers is also an ongoing process for Horry County Police. The department currently has 354 total employees, including 298 sworn officers, and 28 positions that need to be filled, a process that can take more than a year to complete because of the amount of training required. It often costs more than $100,000 to fully train and equip an officer.

Chief Joseph Hill said recruiting is a nationwide problem, exacerbated by public perceptions about law enforcement. Horry County is fortunate, he said, because local residents seem to appreciate the difficulties of the job. That’s not the case in many places, he said.

“Police recruiting, in general, nationwide is way down, he said. “If you look at some of the bigger cities, they’re really hurting.

COVID-19 has affected the amount of time it takes to get new officers on the street, but Hill said the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy has increased the size of its classes. He also pointed out that some technical colleges in the state are now offering a basic four-week training program that helps speed up the process.

Horry County 911, which is also experiencing an increasingly large call volume, is also hiring as officials prepare to open a new $16 million emergency operations center. The 43,000-square-foot building, located next to the J. Reuben Long Detention Center, will have expanded space for the county’s emergency department, along with upgraded communications technology.

Renee Hardwick, head of the 911 department, said 143 people applied for jobs during the most recent application period that ended July 31. About 50 of those people will be interviewed for 22 current job openings.

“Three years ago, that would have been 300 applications,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to apply for jobs today.”

Hardwick said the hiring process takes between four and six weeks, and then it is roughly another 13 weeks before a new employee can begin working a regular shift. Eight new employees are currently in classroom training, and 12 more are scheduled to begin next week.

Hardwick said it can cost the county nearly $60,000 to get someone new “onboard,” and the average employee in her department currently has 1.47 years of experience, a number that needs to be higher.

“We’ve got to figure out what we can do to keep them here,” she said.

Once the new EOC center is up and running, county leaders say they hope to maintain the current 911 space and use it for training and as a backup site that would be available during an emergency. Currently, the county has space available for six backup consoles at the M.L. Brown Public Safety Building in Conway.

“This gives us an opportunity that we will never get again, to use that as a training facility,” said Randy Webster, an assistant county administrator.

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