New Chief, Higher Morale Spearheads Turnaround for New Department
By: Garrett Mitchell
The newly established Trinity Fire Department was in trouble.
The department, located south of Woodruff on Cross Anchor Road, was formed in May 2018 as a result of the consolidation of the Enoree, Hobbysville, and Cross Anchor departments, and suffered from issues ranging from low morale among firefighters, rampant resignations, and disagreements regarding equipment use.
A further consolidation brought the Woodruff Fire Department into the fold in 2019, and in July of that year a new full-time chief was hired in Donnie Carlson. Since then, Trinity has slowly but steadily stabilized under Carlson’s leadership.
“[Spartanburg County] brought me in July 1, 2019, and of course we all know the merger happened in 2018, but that was just between Enoree, Cross Anchor, and Hobbysville,” said Carlson. “Then in 2019 is when they decided to bring Woodruff on board. They felt the need at that time to get a full-time fire chief in here. The gentlemen who was the interim chief at that time, he was already performing other duties for the county, and it was overwhelming. As you can imagine, it’s been a little overwhelming trying to combine four different departments into one. We’ve been trucking uphill ever since.”
Carlson, a native of Pascagoula, Miss., had his work cut out for him. Infighting among members of the old departments and disagreements regarding the appropriation of resources had caused a seemingly irreparable rift among the leadership of the old departments and firefighters now making up the new Trinity Fire Department. Resignations, particularly those of volunteer and part-time firemen, were putting a strain on operations.
Following the arrival of Carlson, however, things started to stabilize as he worked to form a more cohesive unit with the resources available to him.
“Unfortunately, the volunteer world is disappearing, and that’s everywhere and not just here in Spartanburg County,” Carlson said. “The need for a full-time fire department was great in this area because of the vastness of it. The biggest improvement has been having these guys here 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year. We have four people per shift right now, we have a shift officer and three firefighters per shift, and that is supplemented by two part-time people Monday through Friday until 5p.m. and we also depend on the volunteers after five and on the weekends.”
Carlson added, “I can’t speak to what happened prior to me being here and I wouldn’t even want to make any assumptions, but I think in my opinion, it’s no doubt better than what it was.”
Trinity Fire Department is responsible for a large swath of southern Spartanburg County that encompasses 137 square miles. Formulating a viable operating status to effectively cover such a large area, while also helping to mend broken relationships among the local community firefighters, was a difficult task for the incoming Carlson, but a challenge that he met head-on.
“Anybody that was hired in as a chief, even coming in from out of state or out of this area, was going to have a hard road to hoe,” he said. “Because of merging the four departments with four different mentalities and personalities and all that comes with that, the biggest challenge was getting here and trying to get everybody on board with the same vision of, at the end of the day the biggest thing we want to is provide a service to the community. Just trying to get all of those people to come together for one common goal was probably the most challenging.”
Carlson has other aspirations to help further establish Trinity as one of the county’s best fire departments. One of those, he says, is being able to hire more firemen, though he admits that some financial restrictions have made that reality slow to develop. A creative thinker, Carlson has worked with the Spartanburg County Council as well as local businesses to explore the possibility of grant money being an avenue to bring on extra employees.
“The citizens deserve more boots on the ground, but it’s about money,” said Carlson. “Nobody wants to see their taxes levied at a higher rate, but you have to pay these firefighters and you can’t pay them in Monopoly money. They want real currency. We’ve looked at some creative ways to do this. We’ve looked at some grants, some safer grants that will allow us to kind of ease into it. You know, the first year they pay ‘X’ amount of the salary, the next year they pay ‘X’ amount, and the third year they pay a little bit. It allows people to come in and gradually be absorbed into your budget.”
Additionally, equipment issues have also been a hurdle that Trinity has been forced to overcome following the 2018 and 2019 mergers. That, again, goes back to the previous lack of departmental funding.
“The lack of funding for these departments did not allow them to properly maintain their equipment,” Carlson said. “We’ve had some 1980 model fire trucks in service that are in desperate need of being replaced. When you are talking about a brand-new fire truck without a whole lot of bells and whistles, it’s $500,000 to $600,000, and so you can’t have the personnel and pay the people and buy the equipment out of that same budget. We are looking at grants and alternative funding for that as well.”
Despite the hurdles and challenges, and in the midst of what was a financial and logistical crisis inherited upon his hiring, Carlson sees the marked improvement finally coming to fruition, which had been the ultimate goal of the merger. Trinity is working and evolving daily into a cohesive, dependable fire department to serve Woodruff and its surrounding communities.
“I still think that we are new enough that not a lot of people have really interacted with us, which, don’t get me wrong, is a good thing,” said Carlson. “Their worst day is when we get to see them. Still, myself and the deputy chief have talked about going out and getting in the schools and being more involved in the community, doing fire inspection stuff, and we’re getting there. The community is very important to us because at the end of the day, that’s who we are here for, for the betterment of their protection.”
Carlson continued, “We just wanted to get our feet underneath us and really be able to paint a good picture and we have. I think that anybody who looks at it will see that this is definitely better for them that what they had for sure.”