Horry County Fire Rescue accused of “culture of fear,” chief, fire captain deny it

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CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – A former Horry County Fire Rescue employee says the department has a culture of fear and calls it a main reason why hundreds of employees have left in last two decades.

This comes as fire rescue faces criticism from some on Horry County Council. Leigha Powell, who’s a former management analyst for HCFR, says “a culture of fear” exists in the department, preventing employees from discussing issues with their bosses.

Powell says her calls and messages to Horry County Fire Chief Joseph Tanner have gone unanswered, adding that his open door policy is a lie.

“I even spoke with his assistant, who scheduled a meeting for us,” Powell said. “Five minutes later, she called me back and said Chief Tanner canceled our meeting. I said, “That was fine, when’s a better time to meet?” She told me he’s not going to meet with me, but could not explain why. I would not call that an open door policy.”

Powell spoke at Tuesday’s public safety committee meeting. It happened exactly one week after council member Danny Hardee, who represents the Green Sea community, confronted Chief Tanner last week.

Hardee said he’s worried it’s costing the county millions to train new firefighter, pointing to the training cost for each one.

“Correct them, help them and guide them, so we keep them on the payroll and not spend $50,000 to $60,000 to send them out the door,” Hardee said, during the July 9 council meeting.

Council member Dennis DiSabato, who represents parts of Myrtle Beach and Carolina Forest, says he wants county employees to feel like they can go to council with problems.

“This culture of fear, I called it before, I want that to end within the fire department,” DiSabato said.

Chief Tanner denied that culture of fear exists at last week’s council meeting.

“I’m visiting fire stations,” he said. “I will have people come into my office to visit with me as well too.”

Powell says some firefighters still felt they weren’t worth his time.

“One station, as a joke, had a picture on its refrigerator of Chief Tanner that stated, “If you see this guy, he’s our fire chief,”” she said.

Fire captain Autumn Wagner, who supervises the Stephens Crossroads station near Little River, defended Chief Tanner at Tuesday’s public safety committee meeting, saying he’s improved the department’s communication.

“You are more than welcome to walk in my firehouse, any of the ones I supervise with my coworkers,” Wagner said. “There was a culture of fear. There was a time when you weren’t allowed to speak. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

We reached out to Hardee on Tuesday night for reaction to the public safety committee meeting and to clarify last week’s comments.

Hardee says he feels people misinterpreted what he said about HCFR. He also says his goal was to bring attention to retaining firefighters and improving the department.

Chief Tanner declined to comment after Tuesday’s meeting and pointed to what he said at last week’s council meeting.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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