To say 2011 has been an eventful year for the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department would be an understatement.
Marked by retirements and suspensions of top officials under fire for various allegations, including lack of leadership and violation of city policies, the department heads into 2012 still trying to recover from this year’s misadventures.
The city has been looking for a new fire chief since the abrupt retirement in October of Howard Willis, who some inside and outside the department blamed for a lack of leadership that created morale and safety problems. His retirement was among a flurry of exits by department managers who left as the city began investigations into charges that included Willis’ brother, Tommy, using his position as battalion chief to solicit customers and promote the company he manages that secures homes after they are damaged by fire.
Tommy Willis, and deputy chiefs Mike Rogers and Carl Scott, announced their retirements on the same day. Subsequent investigations found fire department employees, including Tommy Willis, to have violated city policies.
A reorganization of the department calls for streamlining it from four battalions to three. The change, which won’t affect fire coverage, will mean fewer supervisors.
Each battalion has three chiefs, each of whom supervises four to six fire stations. Each of the four battalions is assigned to an area of Richmond County – downtown, west, south-central and south-rural.
The search for a new chief has been narrowed to three candidates, including Interim Fire Chief Chris James. City Administrator Fred Russell said the finalists will be interviewed in January, and a decision should come before March.