Benefiting from his nearly 25 years with the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department and four months as interim fire chief, Chris James began his interview for chief Tuesday by handing commissioners a strategic plan for the department.
The 18-page plan addresses “challenges facing the Augusta Fire Department,” including communications, morale, firefighter health and safety and budgetary constraints.
James has served as interim chief since the September retirements of four in the department's upper ranks, including embattled Fire Chief/Emergency Management Agency Director Howard Willis.
The last of three finalists to interview with Augusta Commission members for the top fire post, James spoke to issues he has faced since being named interim chief, including reducing firefighter overtime and dealing with numerous industrial hazards in a county whose population James said doubles during an average weekday.
James called having the opportunity to lead the department through the tough transition “one of the accomplishments of my career.”
Asked about employee morale, he stressed the importance of all firefighters being treated equally and paid equitably. He's seeking a departmentwide salary study to ensure firefighters are paid the same to do the same things.
“We can buy million-dollar trucks; we can build multimillion-dollar buildings; our most important resource is our firefighters,” he said. “Their morale has a direct effect on the level of service they provide to our citizens.”
Morale was one of several issues raised by the Augusta Firefighters Association not long before the forced September retirements.
The union, which represents more than half of the 327-member department, had backed James, but that support appeared to be waning Tuesday.
Association Vice President Charles Masters said the group wasn’t going to endorse either James or Glenn Jones, who interviewed Friday. Masters said the union did prefer that David Greene, the assistant fire chief in Colleton County, S.C., who interviewed Thursday, be excluded from consideration.
"Whatever the commission decides," Masters said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he was going to listen to a recording of the interview with James again before making a decision.
“I know that Chief James is our hometown person with the qualifications, but the gentleman that we interviewed last week, Glenn Jones, was quite impressive,” Guilfoyle said.
Jones is the emergency management and safety coordinator in Peoria, Ariz., and he previously served as a deputy fire chief in Paulding County, Ga.
There are benefits to hiring from within, Guilfoyle added.
“You know the ins and outs, you know who’s who,” he said. “The commission knows Chief James as well.”
City Administrator Fred Russell said he’d likely make a recommendation today on who to hire as fire chief.