Williamston Fire Chief Steve Ellison “will be missed”

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Final Call for Williamston Fire Chief Steve Ellison was held at approximately 4:30 p.m. Saturday (Apr. 3), as a funeral procession including close friends, family members and emergency responders from around the county followed Williamston’s 1936 fire engine carrying Ellison’s casket to his final resting place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
A memorial with his turnout gear was placed in front of the Williamston Fire Department.

Following visitation and funeral service at Big Creek Baptist Church, Williamston Police and Anderson County Sheriff’s Deputies blocked traffic as the procession moved along Hwy. 20 from Williamston to Highway 29. Whitefield Fire and ACSO blocked traffic at Hwy. 20 & 29 and Old Williamston Road.
A fire engine with lights flashing stationed in front of the Whitefield Fire Department. West Pelzer Fire Department and other Anderson County fire departments followed. A ladder truck with large American Flag was at the cemetery.

Vance Steven “Steve” Ellison, Sr., 74, died unexpectedly Thursday, April 1. He was devoted to fire service for over forty years, serving as former Chief of the West Pelzer Fire Department and as Chief of the Williamston Fire Department for twenty-seven years.

Ellison and his wife Jean, owned and operated ERS Video/Radio Shack, a local appliance and movie rental store which opened in the early 1980s and rented 1000’s of movies to people in the area over the years. The business closed at the end of 2019 when Ellison sold the building and retired.

David Meade, Managing Editor of The Journal said that during a recent conversation, “Steve said he was enjoying his retirement and had time to cut the grass, be with his family and spend more time working to improve the fire department. Steve loved his family and his town. He will be missed.”

“It is with great sadness that Steve Ellison, the Town of Williamston Fire Chief for 27 years, passed away Thursday,” said Williamston Mayor Rockey Burgess. “Chief Ellison was a sincere, honest, & compassionate man who loved serving his community and helping others. His legacy and many years of service to our town will never be forgotten. Please join me in continuing to keep the Ellison family in your prayers.”

Interim Williamston Fire Chief Tim Heatherly said, “Steve dedicated his life to the fire service. He dedicated 100 percent to the Williamston Fire Department. He will be dearly missed, but will never be forgotten.”

Former Mayor Mack Durham said, “It was my pleasure for Steve Ellison to serve as Chief of our Fire Department during my time as Mayor. Chief Ellison built our Fire Department to a level that few volunteer departments are able to attain. He was awarded for being in the top 1% of departments in their class in the nation and improved our ISO rating to an ISO-3, which was unheard of. Much of the Fire Department equipment was upgraded or improved under his command, during my time with the Town, and he added unprecedented equipment like the Ladder Truck. He added a full-time employee for the first time in our history, started the Explorers Program to develop youth interest in Fire Safety, added the first female FireFighter in Williamston, and had plans to build an additional building to house a back up pumper needed to get our department to an ISO-2.”

“The full-time employee was added and the building was approved by Council for the Chief to begin the process of investigating possible funding opportunities for the Town as a future project,” Durham said. “Not only was Chief Ellison dedicated to his service, he was also the most frugal department head at the Town, stretching every penny to get what our FireFighters, and our Town, needed to provide the best fire prevention and fire protection in our area”

“The Williamston Fire Department was second to none during Chief Ellison’s tenure,” the former mayor said. “It will take a long time to reach the level of experience and leadership provided by Chief Steve Ellison. I don’t know if anyone can ever be as dedicated to serving our community. He will be missed by our Fire Department almost as much as by his family.”

Events Organizer Dianne Lollis served with Ellison on several committees including the Spring Water Festival Committee, the Town’s Park Committee and others. “Steve is one person the town will really miss,” Lollis said. “I considered him a good friend and partner on the committees we served on. He went overboard to help me on anything I needed. He was involved in everything we did.”
Lollis recounted recently asking Ellison if he could have Santa visit with Brian Davenport. Ellison brought Santa (Greg Paige) on the historic fire engine and visited with Brian following the Williamston Christmas Parade.
“Steve told me it was the biggest thrill he had,” Lollis said. “He went out of his way to do things. The town is really going to miss him.”

Chief Ellison, and the fire department, were involved in all of the town’s events including the Freedom Celebration, Spring Water Festival, Boo in the Park, the Christmas Parade and opening night of the Christmas Park when Santa arrived on the town’s 1936 firetruck and others.

If not for Steve, the town’s annual Spring Water Festival may have ended 15 years ago. Ellison was involved in the Spring Water Festival since the beginning. He, along with his brother Phillip and others with the fire department, were instrumental in organizing the festival car show.

When the town experienced financial troubles years ago, town employees were organizing the Spring Water Festival, and due to cutbacks, the festival was in jeopardy of not happening.
Springwater Committee Chairman David Meade said, “Steve and I talked about it and decided we would see if we could get enough people volunteer to help to continue it. We put the word out and about 10 people, including Dianne Lollis, showed up to help organize the festival.”
Ellison served as Co-Chair of the Springwater Committee since then and the festival continued for another 15 years.
“If not for Steve’s support, it would not have,” Meade said.

Chief Ellison was a member of the Williamston Fire Department for 40 years and served as chief until he resigned March 3. He became involved with the all volunteer fire department in 1978. When Ellison took over the position of Fire Chief in 1994, the department had the lowest ISO rating of any municipality in South Carolina.

Under his leadership, the department worked steadily to make improvements and over the next few years, improved to a Class 4 ISO rating, which is not a common rating for an all volunteer department. The ISO audit is done every ten years.

On the next audit in 2014, they received a Class 3 ISO rating, the highest ever scored for an all volunteer department in the state at that time.

“We worked gradually, with FEMA grants and budget funds,” Chief Ellison told The Journal in one of many interviews through the years. “Over the last 20 years we went from the worst to the best.”

An ISO Class 3 designation is not an easy thing to achieve. “Normally it takes a fulltime fire department to get it,” Ellison said at the time. Columbia and Myrtle Beach were the only two Fire Departments in the state that were a Class 1. There were a few with a Class 2, but they all had paid firefighters. “We are the only all volunteer department to ever receive a rating this high,” Ellison said at the time.

In 2014 the ALL VOLUNTEER Fire Department had 28 part-time volunteer firemen. All were certified firefighters. One, a female. They also started an Explorer Program which had five participants.

The ISO classification had big impacts for the town’s fire rating and insurance premiums, especially for businesses and industries that are already in the town or considering locating there.

Training, response times and equipment all contributed to the total score.

The Williamston Fire Department began using a new reporting program in 2012 which would automatically send call information and statistics to the County 911 system which in turn sent it to LLR in Columbia and to FEMA. It also makes the information readily available to the ISO Rating Company in New Jersey.

The reporting includes when the fire trucks are dispatched, when they roll to a call and firefighters response time.

Community Involvement was also important in achieving a lower rating.

Under Chief Ellison, the Williamston Fire Department (WFD) was very active in the community.

The fire department participates in numerous community and town events held throughout the year in Williamston, and is involved in fire prevention at all of the local schools and day cares in the area.

 

Training and FEMA grants also contributed to a lower rating.

WFD began Mutual Aid Training with two local fire departments, Belton and Honea Path, were also factors in a lower classification. “We train together and fight fires together. The relationship is one of the best things we have ever done,” Chief Ellison said at the time.

Water Availability/FEMA Grants and Equipment

 

Availability of water is also one of the factors used in the ISO audit process.
The town’s hydrant system was upgraded from a two way connector to a three way connector, which allows a five inch hose to be connected. All of the town’s trucks carry five inch hose.

A new five inch hose was obtained with a FEMA grant.

The WFD obtained FEMA grants in seven of eleven years. The funds, totaling $600,000, were used to upgrade equipment. Chief Ellison was responsible for writing those grants.

“It has been tremendous,” Chief Ellison said at the time. “The Town of Williamston could never have come up with that kind of money.”

In 2014 the Town was able to purchase a new RIT Rapid Intervention Truck which was outfitted with grant money.

The vehicle has 4WD, can be used in inclement weather, and can fight fires with a 300 gallon tank. “It rolls on most everything,” Ellison said. “It has everything we need for an auto accident, checking for carbon monoxide, cardiac and we have an air meter which tests air in a house.”

That air meter alone cost $10,000.

Grants also covered the cost of two thermal imaging cameras and the department obtained their own air compressor which allows them to refill air tanks with SCUBA quality air. The $34,000 cost of the compressor was covered by a FEMA grant. The 800 mghz radios, which contributed to the lower ISO were obtained with a $45,000 FEMA grant.

Grants were used to purchase the latest in rescue tools including the Jaws of Life.

Ellison was responsible for writing all of the grants.

The reason the Williamston Fire Department received the Class 3 ISO rating, Ellison said at the time was “Doing what we are supposed to do. Responding to a fire in a timely manner, training for the men, equipment for the men doing the training and reporting the information on the Emergency Reporting system.”

In 2017, the WFD, with help from the town, was able to purchase a used aerial ladder truck. In 2019 Ellison requested the town provide funding for a paid position with the department. Both helped on the next audit.

In December of 2020, the WFD barely missed achieving a Class 2 ISO rating.

Chief Ellison appeared before Town Council and explained that the 2020 ISO audit showed that the fire department needed to have a back up pumper to meet requirements to increase their rating and there was no place to put it. He requested the council consider a new building “as an approved project and to seek funding for it.”
The request was approved under then mayor Durham.

Chief Ellison said his recommendation was a long range plan, hopefully that could be accomplished in the next three years.

Shortly after resigning his position as Chief just weeks ago, Ellison told The Journal that he didn’t want any recognition. “He said he did it for the town and the people,” Managing Editor David Meade said. “He said he did what he did because “It was my job”. ”

Ellison’s obituary can be found in this issue of The Journal.