Fire Chief Chris James was back in the hot seat Monday over two recent departmental mishaps and the city's request for proposals from ambulance providers.
Augusta Commission members Marion Williams, a former firefighter, and Donnie Smith, a public safety officer, peppered James and Procurement Director Geri Sams about the city's request for ambulance services, which Sams said drew 13 vendors to a recent pre-bid conference.
“I wanted somebody who knew about ambulances, who knew about that type stuff,” Williams said, questioning who had developed the request and why it did not specify the number of ambulances the vendor is required to keep in Augusta, a number that James has said remains absent from the city's 8-year-old agreement with its current provider, Gold Cross.
James said the request for proposals, developed by himself, Sams, 911 Director Dominique Nutter and the city's medical officer, Phillip Coule, asked bidders to specify how many ambulances they would station in Augusta to maintain service levels instead of specifying a number.
Not satisfied, Williams moved, with a second from Smith, to rescind the request and have the city administrator renegotiate a contract with Gold Cross.
Commissioner Alvin Mason defended the request and its authors, saying the city was doing it now only because its agreement with Gold Cross requires nine months' notice of termination.
“It's utterly ridiculous to try and shut it down at this juncture,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said, moving, with a second from Mason, to delete Williams' motion. Both motions tied 2-2, so no action was taken.
Smith went on to question the fire chief about manpower shortages causing engine companies to be shut down and about the chief's April 30 request to borrow a supply of air tanks from Fort Gordon after most of the departments' tanks reached an inspection deadline that day.
James said that he had been relying on lower-paid firefighters to perform overtime after the department exceeded its $600,000 overtime budget last year, leading to some shortages, but that all calls were covered. A new set of recruits coming in will resolve the issue, he said.
James also defended the missed deadline, saying that word had gone around the department about the deadline for inspections required before the tanks are refilled but that he hadn't been informed until it was too late.
“You cannot refill this bottle until it has been recertified,” James said. “It does not put the bottle out of service.”
Smith continued his questions but was silenced by Lockett's motion to “call the question.” No action was taken.
James explained the recent purchase of a $770,000 aerial truck to replace one heavily damaged by an electrical fire.
Though the trucks typically are custom-ordered, the city had to buy one pre-made because it had no spare to maintain service levels.
Despite the questions, Commissioner Bill Fennoy said he maintained confidence in James, who was hired last year to replace longtime staffer Howard Willis.
“What I like about Chief James is when issues are brought to his attention, he responds,” Fennoy said. “I believe he'll put measures in place where equipment that needs to be serviced on a regular basis will be serviced prior to the expiration date.”
Smith, however, wasn't as confident.
“My concern is the safety of those men and women,” he said.
Monday's interrupted discussion about the air tanks “didn't get to the crux of the problem.”