Conway Fire Chief Phillip "Le" Hendrick Jr. isn't exaggerating when he says he was born into the fire service.
Born into a firefighting family, Conway Fire Chief Phillip Hendrick Jr.'s
career began as a 15-year-old cadet. Photo: City of Conway.
His father, who retired as the assistant chief of the Conway Fire Department, took his infant son to the fire station for a visit before the family even made it home from the hospital. Le Hendrick started at age 15 as a cadet in Conway, and hung around the fire station every day after school and on weekends. He became a volunteer firefighter and later worked for the Horry County Fire Department because nepotism rules prevented him from working in Conway. Once his father retired, Le moved to the Conway department, where he worked his way up, serving as a full-time firefighter, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief before being named chief in 2014.
"I've been here my whole life, literally," Hendrick said. "It's all I've ever known. All I wanted to do was work here. I put my whole life into it."
That longevity is not unusual in fire departments — large and small — around the state. Firefighters are known for dedicating their lives to the fire service, working 24-hour shifts, responding to fires and explosions, automobile accidents and medical emergencies. They clean trucks and service equipment, talk to groups about the importance of fire safety, and take part in physical fitness training. And they belong to what many of them refer to as the brotherhood of firefighters.
"To be a firefighter, it has to be in your heart. You want to do it all the time. You have that passion to help people," said Hampton Deputy Chief Thomas Smith, who has been with the fire department since 1988. "It's rewarding helping people in their time of need. That's why you find people that want to do it forever."
Whether departments are staffed with full-time career firefighters or a combination of paid firefighters and volunteers, they all adhere to a standard daily routine.
Many work 24 hours on and 48 hours off schedules, with the shifts typically starting and ending at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. The first order of business is checking all the apparatus, making sure the trucks, equipment, breathing apparatus and other devices are ready for service. Most departments usually do at least an hour of physical fitness training during each shift. Then there are public talks, training and other duties assigned through the shift commander. Firefighters may spend time working on pre-emergency plans, inspecting businesses or hydrants, or talking to schools and community groups.
"That's the utopia, the roadmap," Hendrick said. "I usually look at my schedule when I wake up and do the complete opposite. Every day is different."
The set daily schedules don't include the fires or the vehicle accidents or medical first response calls that more departments now cover. Those medical calls account for about 65 percent of the calls the Conway department handles, he said. That percentage is typical in many departments around the state.
As Hilton Head Island Fire Chief Brad Tadlock said, "We build a day, and then run calls and plug in the day around it."
Hilton Head Island Fire Chief Brad Tadlock began firefighting as a volunteer,
and has served with Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue and its predecessors
for more than 30 years. Photo: Town of Hilton Head Island.
While firefighters on Hilton Head Island work a 24-hour shift and have a full schedule of work activities planned between 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., "very seldom do we get through a day and stay on schedule because we have calls," he said.
Tadlock has served with Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue and its predecessors more than 30 years, starting when the island was a quieter and smaller tourist-heavy community. He had been a volunteer firefighter in the Midwest when he decided he wanted to pursue a career in the fire service.
The Hilton Head Island department, like many others, provides fire and EMS services, with all firefighters trained as basic emergency medical technicians and half of the 108 line firefighters doubling as certified paramedics.
"That's becoming more common. When I started there weren't many fire departments that had paramedic transport. There are a lot more now," Tadlock said. "Fire stations are strategically located to have good response times to fire. So you already have location and infrastructure in place."
The call volume increases on Hilton Head Island from April through Labor Day, although the town's winter and year-round population is growing. Fire Rescue has 145 employees, with 108 firefighters on trucks. It also manages the 911 center for Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands.
Many smaller South Carolina cities and towns, such as Hampton, rely on a combination of full-time and volunteer firefighters to staff their stations. Hampton has two full-time firefighters, including a deputy chief, who share the workload with part-time and volunteer firefighters.
The full-time firefighters work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, while the volunteers help with after-hour calls and response. Most of those 20 to 22 volunteers — 60 to 70 percent — are full-time firefighters in other departments, says Thomas Smith, the Hampton deputy chief. That type of support is common, with departments quick to volunteer and help out their fellow firefighters.
"I've been a full-time firefighter since '89, but I've also always volunteered somewhere," Smith said.
Full-time firefighters are not allowed to volunteer for the department that employs them.
Working in Hampton, population 2,500, Smith also understands the side of responding to vehicle accidents or fires where friends and neighbors are affected. The majority of the department's full-time and volunteer firefighters are EMTs, while a few are also paramedics.
"Being a small town, when we respond it's usually somebody we know or we have heard of. That can be a difficult side of it," Smith said.
Firefighters also help their communities through natural disasters — something Conway has seen plenty of in recent years. Hurricane Florence flooded the city last September, guaranteeing Hendrick, the fire chief who also serves as the city's emergency manager, will be working for months on the recovery. After an ice storm in 2014, a flood in 2015, Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017, he feels as if he's becoming an expert dealing with FEMA.
"Five years in a row. It's a skillset I don't want, but we're getting pretty good at it," he said.