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‘It’s just simply not enough’: South Carolina’s search and rescue team says it needs more funding from state for disaster response

Published: Nov. 2, 2021 at 6:53 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - If local first responders are overwhelmed with an emergency or disaster, they call in South Carolina’s urban search and rescue team.

But that team said it searches for money to keep up operations every year.

“We’re funding it to the best that we can, and it’s just simply not enough, both operationally and equipment,” State Fire Marshal Jonathan Jones told members of the state Senate Labor, Commerce, and Industry Committee last week.

The South Carolina Urban Search and Rescue system has relied on one-time allocations in the state budget — including $153,000 in 2019 and $850,000 in 2020 — along with money from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and South Carolina Fire Academy budgets to operate each year.

Now the team will be asking state lawmakers for a recurring $1 million allocation, coming through a request in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s budget. Jones said that money would go toward Task Force I, which can carry out large-scale commercial structural collapse and disaster missions, HART, the Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, and firefighter mobilization.

The state also supports five regional search and rescue teams, which Jones said can respond to small-to-medium structural collapse incidents and wide-area search missions and are based in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head/Bluffton, Columbia, and Greenville. Training and equipment for those teams, however, is the responsibility of the local fire departments that host them.

“It’s the firefighters from the local fire departments that make up that program, and they need to have and demand the equipment to continue to do that job,” South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association Executive Director Charlie King said.

South Carolina has the only team for hundreds of miles that is able to respond to large-scale search and rescue operations, like major hurricanes or building collapses, such as the Surfside condo in Florida, according to Jones. He said if these types of disasters were to happen in South Carolina and were extensive enough to require extra aid, the next closest help would come from Virginia Beach, Memphis, or Miami and take days to arrive.

“We have to maintain those robust teams because additional help is a long way away,” Jones said.

When it comes to the possibility of responding to a large, man-made disaster, like the Surfside condo collapse, Jones said they currently have the capability to do that, but not the capacity.

“Capability is, we have the expertise, we have the equipment, we have trained personnel that can respond within those first 72 hours, which is really when lives would be saved. What we lack is the capacity — in other words, the numbers,” he said.

In the meantime, Jones says some equipment is 15 to 20 years old and, in many cases, is worn out and outdated but would cost millions of dollars to replace it all.

But he said they would rather replace old equipment in an ongoing process instead of all at once, which would lead to that equipment eventually all becoming outdated around the same time.

“We have to invest in our in-state resources,” Jones said. “We have to be able to maintain it — the equipment maintenance, replacement, training, personal protective equipment, the personnel themselves — in order to maintain our in-state capabilities and provide that initial response for the first 72 hours.”

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