Frequent alarms cost taxpayers

A fire truck sits in front of Richmond Summit Apartments on Broad Street. As of July 5, fire trucks had responded to 90 calls there this year at a projected cost of more than $13,000.

Fire department dispatches to a problematic downtown apartment complex are on the rise again, costing thousands of taxpayer dollars.


As of July 5, fire trucks had responded to 90 calls at Richmond Summit Apartments at 744 Broad St. at a total projected cost of more than $13,000, according to reports obtained by The Augusta Chronicle . The number of dispatches puts the apartments on pace to exceed the 166 calls received in 2010 and the 126 calls in 2009. Two engines and one truck respond to a typical call, at a projected cost of more than $145 per response, according to the city reports, obtained through an open records request. They project 20 minutes per call and fuel costs of $2.37 per gallon, with a 3-mile round trip per response. For the city as a whole, yearly costs are projected at $109,197 for 1,946 responses.

Dispatch reports show nearly 25 percent of the 911 calls that sent fire trucks to Richmond Summit, which caters to low-income elderly and disabled residents, were a result of an unintentional alarm or smoke detector activation. An additional 24 percent came from cooking fires listed as "confined to container."

"Most of those people are either on drugs or they're spaced out, or whatever," said William Johnson, a resident who said the alarms often go off when food is left unattended on stoves.

When new 911 director Dominick Nutter looked over the reports for the first time, he expressed serious concern, particularly with the multiple calls labeled "malicious false alarm."

"I would definitely have to talk to the fire chief on this one," said Nutter, who has been on the job less than 30 days. "But that's something that I'll look at the ordinance and do an analysis of the calls and come out with a strategy on how to address it."

That ordinance took effect in February 2009, shortly before John Fox Dryden III, 58, died in his fourth-floor apartment in one of two building fires at Richmond Summit in the past three years.

The ordinance gives Nutter the authority to send a written notice to alarm users after a third false alarm within a permit year. It states that property owners would be fined increasing amounts for each successive alarm.

Still, even though reports show eight "malicious false alarms" at Richmond Summit in 2010 and three so far this year, Nutter said he and his staff are not aware of any previous application of the ordinance at Richmond Summit or any other property. If it were to be enforced for eight false alarms in one permit year, the fines would equal $250.

Corky Gatewood, the vice president of marketing for Valdosta, Ga.-based Ambling Management Co., which owns Richmond Summit, said in an e-mail that he wasn't aware of the excessive calls but believes most are real emergencies.

"In talking with (Richmond County fire) Capt. (Jack) Womack, we do not feel that there is anything that we can do differently," Gatewood said. "Our systems seem to be operating as designed."

Richmond Summit was the main reason Augusta's Downtown Advisory Panel took a proposed ordinance to the Augusta Commission in 2005. Panel members said the apartments were responsible for "hundreds" of alarms a year, but commissioners at the time voted down that plan, which included larger fines than the current ordinance.

EMS calls were the most common source of dispatches in the past three years, making up close to one-third of calls. Fire Chief Howard Willis said federal patient privacy laws prevent him from discussing the nature of those incidents.

Nutter, Willis and Gatewood all said they were not aware of any conversations between authorities and the property managers at Richmond Summit, who declined to speak to the media.

"It has improved some," Willis said of the frequent dispatches. "It comes and goes. Sometimes it gets good, and then sometimes it changes."