Several members of Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue Auxiliary were involved in the series of events that led to the department losing its contract with the county, according to a statement from Columbus County Commissioners.
Commissioners issued a more detailed description today (Wednesday) on the incident involving Chief Shannon Worrell, who was recorded making homophobic statements and racist remarks to employees at Whiteville’s San Jose restaurant on July 24. Worrell posted an apology on Facebook, and has since told media outlets that while he regretted hurting anyone’s feelings, he did not regret saying that two women could not be the mother of the same child, or that he felt all immigrants should be deported.
The disagreement began when Worrell argued with restaurant staff over a gratuity that was added to the dinner bill. The tape shows that Worrell said a tip had been left on the table, while the restaurant workers said a gratuity was automatically added to larger groups.
Commissioners called an executive session at Monday’s meeting, for personnel and legal purposes. After the session, they voted to cancel the station’s contract with little discussion. Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd cast the sole dissenting vote.
Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue Auxiliary began its EMS service after several members left the Lake Waccamaw Fire Department. The departure followed a disagreement over whether then-Town Manager Darren Currie could terminate the fire chief.
The auxiliary is not associated with the town or the town fire department. Lake Waccamaw fire department was voluntarily closed for a period after the auxiliary’s departure due to missing records and a lawsuit brought by Worrell, his wife Lynn, and the auxiliary against the town. The auxiliary sued for vehicles, boats, a crash truck and other equipment paid for through fundraisers. The case was eventually settled, with some equipment going to the new department.
The fire department has since rebounded, and has one of the highest fire ratings in Columbus County.
The board’s original statement on Tuesday gave no explanation for the cancellation of the contract. It simply stated that the county had terminated the contract, effective Oct. 2. It also noted that the county had coordinated with other providers to maintain emergency medical service.
The latest statement came after Worrell gave interviews to media outlets about the July 24 incident.
The statement said that commissioners “voted 6-1 to terminate the contract with Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue Auxiliary Inc. based on the actions of former Chief Shannon Worrell and other members of the rescue department in the San Jose restaurant in Whiteville.”
“Mr. Worrell and his fellow rescue members’ actions that were witnessed by customers in the restaurant and recorded on a 40+ minute video were inexcusable, irresponsible and in conflict with the county’s anti-discrimination policies.”
The rescue squad members were reportedly at the eatery to celebrate a birthday of one of the members, and were on their own time. Several were wearing shirts and caps with Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue logos, however, “thus giving the impression to the public that they were there on official time.”
The statement from the county notes that the rescue personnel are not county employees, but “Columbus County holds it employees and contractors to a professional standard and will not tolerate or condone discrimination of any kind.
“Since this incident involved multiple individuals from Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue Auxiliary Inc., the board of commissioners decided to exercise its right to terminate its contract with the organization and replace it with a different service provider in the county.”
For the remaining 90 days, Lake Waccamaw EMS will be required to answer calls as normal. If they fail to do so, the county will dispatch other departments to cover the calls.
The county has a policy in place in case a department is out of service, the statement said.
“A permanent arrangement will be implemented in the near future to ensure long term, excellent emergency service in the district.”
Lake Waccamaw Fire and Rescue Auxiliary, commonly called Lake Waccamaw EMS or Station 30, has a budget of $139,125, according to the county. Of that amount, $10,543 comes from the county. The rest is paid through ambulance fees and other sources. The budget submitted to the county for Fiscal 2022-23 does not include line items for personnel.