Augusta Fire Chief Chris James is taking heat after much of the department’s supply of compressed air cylinders missed an April 30 deadline for required testing.
The situation prompted James to borrow 52 on Wednesday from Fort Gordon’s fire department under a mutual aid agreement, drawing criticism from Augusta Firefighters Association and several Augusta commissioners.
Ensuring equipment meets safety standards is the responsibility of fire administration, association president Charles Masters said. Engine companies notified administration of the approaching deadline in March and twice again in April, he said.
“If it’s not a problem, and everything is good, why did we get 52 bottles from Fort Gordon?” he asked.
Chad Johnson, the association vice president, said he saw the tanks being swapped out Thursday and knew the situation was being addressed.
However, “it’s still a major safety concern, as far as the firefighters’ association. That is one of our main pieces of protection,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Donnie Smith, who works in public safety as a lieutenant with the Georgia State Patrol, said he was “disappointed that our administrative staff didn’t plan for this,” despite being advised earlier about the approaching deadline.
“I do think it’s serious. It had the ability to impact the lives of the firemen that are trying to take care of the community,” Smith said. “I’m sure we will discuss it at the next meeting.”
Commissioner Marion Williams, a former firefighter, said he was going to find out why the department missed the deadline. He called the city having to borrow tanks “embarrassing”.
“A fireman’s life depends on the air bottles,” he said. “Whoever is supposed to do it, they should have done it.”
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle agreed.
“This was brought up two and one-half weeks ago and it should have been a priority for the safety and welfare of the department,” he said.
James said the tanks can still be used, just not refilled without the required testing.
“Everyone would have a bottle that they could use right this minute,” he said.
The chief said he asked for the loan from Fort Gordon “just in case something was to happen.”
Nearly all the tanks reached the deadline at the same time because they were purchased at the same time, he said.
The required “hydrostatic” testing performed on the tanks ensures they have no stress cracks or damage and are fully functional, he said.
City administrators said they will continue to investigate who dropped the ball.
“One would assume that someone would have picked up on that (deadline)” City Administrator Fred Russell said. “When we find that person, we’ll take whatever corrective action is appropriate.”
Still, “Nobody seems to be in danger; nobody seems to be in harm’s way,” said Russell, a former police officer.
Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan said an e-mail was sent in March to fire administration about the deadline, but it “wasn’t real detailed.”
“We should have followed our process a little better,” Shanahan said. James is “going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”