“I’ve done this my whole life and I enjoy doing this,” said Santee Fire Chief Ed Barnett.
Twenty years ago Barnett became the first Black fire chief in Santee.
He’s been working as a firefighter for 35 years and has no plans to retire any time soon.
When he became fire chief, he didn’t have confidence of all of the town’s residents, he said.
“Some told me I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I’m a person and I like challenges. You tell me I can’t do it or I won’t be able to do it, I’ll show you I can do it,” Barnett said.
“And I think that’s what really motivates me to go on and enhance education, doing things in the community and being more community-involved because it does work and it does help out,” he said.
“One of the things I try to do when I’m focused on serving the community is to do what’s right in every occasion,” he said.
But when some residents had their doubts about his abilities because he was Black, Barnett said those experiences made him “a better, stronger and more wise person.”
“I realized I had to go on. I didn’t let it hold me back,” he said.
“A lot more other people respected me more and they got their confidence built up in me,” he said.
Barnett said nowadays, the residents are confident in him.
“Our residents are very supportive of our department,” he said.
Residents often send cards, letters and offer to help in any way they can, he said.
Barnett’s firefighting days began in the 1980s.
“I was recruited back in 1984. I was in my sophomore year in high school,” Barnett said, “The captains who were here at the station, they went around in the community recruiting firefighters and they came by and recruited me. I started and came through the junior (firefighters) program. I stuck with it and all the way until where I am now.”
Barnett said most of his inspiration as a youth about firefighting centered on a television series in the 1970s called “Emergency!”
One of the show’s main characters, John Gage, played by Randolph Mantooth, was part of a fire and rescue duo who helped people with all types of mishaps.
“When Gage and all of those fellas, whenever they’d go out on calls, I think that’s what really brought me into being a firefighter,” Barnett said.
After Barnett graduated from the former Roberts High School in Holly Hill, he worked at Carolina Eastman for 10 years as part of the fire brigade inside of the plant, he said.
“Once they started laying off people, I was laid off. But I had all of my certifications and I started working at Orangeburg County EMS,” he said.
For the next 13 years, he worked there and then became a full-time firefighter at the Santee Fire Department, where he’s been ever since.
Barnett said that over the years, there are incidents that remain on his mind and in his heart.
Three of the incidents turned out to be deadly.
One time, the cab of an 18-wheeler went through a pine tree on Old Number Six Highway, Barnett said.
Firefighters had to climb into the cab of the truck to cut the pine tree back because the driver was entrapped.
In another other deadly incident, two 18-wheelers collided on the Interstate 95 bridge that connects Orangeburg and Clarendon counties over Lake Marion.
Barnett said one of the tractor-trailers stopped in the road and the other ran into the back of it.
“Both caught fire. We had to shut down I-95 for 12 hours. A lot of agencies were involved in that. Both drivers died,” he said.
And a third fatal fiery blaze, a fuel tanker and a sedan collided on Jan. 31, 2019, on the U.S. Highway 301 overpass, where it connects with I-95.
The tractor-trailer overturned and caught fire.
The occupants of the sedan weren’t injured, but the trucker died.
The Santee Fire Department was the lead agency.
Multiple fire departments from the eastern end of Orangeburg County responded to the blaze.
“That was a pretty horrible scene,” Barnett said.
“We stayed out there for about 12 hours,” he added.
And in a fourth incident that happened not long after that and at about that same location, a tractor-trailer with a car carrier caught fire.
On the trailer were 10 new Kia vehicles.
Barnett said the right rear tire went flat and was driven over time.
“The rubber caught on fire and the fire proceeded up to the cars,” he said.
Firefighters were able to keep the trailer cool so the trucker could disconnect the truck from the trailer, he said.
The trucker was then able to safely pull the truck away from the trailer.
Barnett said that since he became chief 20 years ago, he’s been able to lead the department through various accomplishments such as: building a substation on Intracoastal Lane, adding a ladder truck to the fleet, receiving FEMA grants of $240,000 for equipment such as breathing apparatuses and air compressors to name a few, receiving a grant for a tanker in 2011, completing the headquarters building and receiving a grant in 2019 for a new pumper.
The new pumper will be added to the fleet in mid-November, he said.
The department will retire a 1989 pumper.
Currently, the department has three pumpers, one tanker, a ladder truck and a command vehicle.
The department is trying to update all of their pumper trucks, he said.
When Barnett isn’t busy trying to keep up with the schedule of 20 firefighters, responding to calls, engaging in continuous education credits and interacting with the community members, he enjoys several hobbies.
His top hobbies are golf, hunting deer, going on cruises and remaining active at Chapel Hill Baptist Church.
He’s married and has three children.
His son is following in his footsteps, Barnett said, by working as a firefighter and EMT in North Charleston while doing part-time work at the Santee Fire Department.
Barnett said he’s most thankful for his family’s support, especially that of his wife.
His wife remains his strength, even when he leaves in the middle of the night or early morning hours to respond to calls.
“We just like being there for the public,” he said, “being there for the residents and being there for the tourists who stay in the hotels.”
“I’m a people person,” Barnett said, “and I love what I do.”
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5545. Follow on Twitter: @MRBrowTandD.
“Some told me I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I’m a person and I like challenges. You tell me I can’t do it or I won’t be able to do it, I’ll show you I can do it."
-- Santee Fire Chief Ed Barnett
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