Acting Augusta fire chief takes on department fraught with issues

Improving leadership, fitness on agenda
Acting Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James said the department will no longer recommend a board-up service that was run by a former battalion chief.

Taking hold of a department fraught with problems, acting Fire Chief Chris James says the department has issues that must be addressed but believes none will affect the city’s fire protection.

 

“There are some changes that need to be made,” he said, “but citizens will still get fire trucks when the alarm goes off. None of that will stop.”

Changes include implementing a policy against firefighters recommending or even contacting 1-800 Board Up, a franchise owned by Bowles Construction but run by former Battalion Chief Tommy Willis. Instead, they’ll provide fire victims with a flier listing phone numbers of board-up companies.

Willis turned in a letter of retirement last week after being placed on leave while the city investigates claims that he used his position and city resources to steer board-up business exclusively to the company. His brother, Fire Chief Howard Willis, and Deputy Chiefs Carl Scott and Mike Rogers also agreed to retire last week.

James acknowledged the
department has had leadership issues. He didn’t deny allegations that the department of 300 recently held its first staff meeting in at least two years.

“If there’s no meetings, there’s no communications, what happens is there’s a disconnect within the ranks. They don’t have the buy-in. Once they get that feeling, they opt out,” he said.

One of the first things James said he will do is improve firefighter fitness, which was resisted and even discarded by Howard Willis several years ago after those at upper levels refused to submit to it. The department is in the process of implementing a wellness program that will start with firefighters getting a baseline physical.

“The test will definitely set us up for success when it comes to the firefighters physically being able to handle the job,” said James, who as training chief is responsible for administering a fitness exam to new recruits and ensuring incumbent firefighters meet annual training requirements.

Getting the force healthy will require a culture change, James acknowledges. Stations tend to cook and dine together, and those who opt for healthier meals sometimes are scorned, he said.

James’ willingness to take on the issues doesn’t guarantee he will get the chief’s job full-time, and history shows hiring for the top fire post in Augusta to be a messy affair. Augusta interviewed at least two external candidates for chief in 2005 before hiring Howard Willis – then Emergency Management Agency director – to fill a vacancy left when Al Gillespie departed after three years to be chief in North Las Vegas, Nev., because the Augusta Commission would not give him a written contract.

Gillespie, hired after several commission votes to select him failed, replaced Bernard Mack, who left after just three months on the job, citing personal issues and city politics. Mack replaced Ronnie Few, the city’s first black chief, who became the subject of a scathing report by a Richmond County special grand jury, though he was never indicted.

City Administrator Fred Russell, who initially said he’d have a candidate from a “national search” within four months, said Friday he was only “80 percent sure” a national search would be conducted.

Another issue expected to come into play is whether to hire separate people to head the fire department and EMA. Commissioner Al Mason said Augusta’s size and proximity to large industry, rail lines and other potential hazards makes having separate personnel mandatory, but Russell and Commissioner Joe Jackson have defended combining the positions, saying it has saved money.

With the recent scandals, which includes allegations and ongoing investigations into misuse of city vehicles and the dissemination of pornography on fire department computers, none on the commission disagree that change is necessary. Jackson, the head of the city’s public safety committee, said the city should look to national fire standards.

Commissioner Bill Lockett, a retired federal investigator, said the department “should have had a thorough investigation a long time ago.”

James, who will remain acting chief until the commission decides who will hold the title, said the department will push through and attain the goals he spoke of Friday.

“A lot of the things that we’ve discussed will happen, with me or with someone else,” he said. “As long as we’re in this period of dysfunction, with the press and the bad things, it will be difficult to move, but we’ll still move forward.”

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