A yearlong legal dispute between Augusta Fire Department and Augusta Regional Airport aired some dirty laundry Monday after Augusta Commission member Donnie Smith raised the issue in a committee meeting.
Fire Chief Chris James said he first determined that fire response was an issue at the airport during a routine alarm test more than a year ago. The call never reached Augusta 911, and instead showed up as a voicemail on the airport fire chief’s cellphone, James told commissioners at a Monday committee meeting.
Since then, attorneys for the city and the airport have been attempting to document who’s in charge when an incident arises but have yet to agree on a plan. Smith said he put the item on Monday’s agenda so commissioners and the public would be aware.
“I don’t want the public at risk, and I simply want to have this fixed,” Smith said.
While Augusta’s charter specifies the fire chief is lead firefighter for the consolidated government, Airport Director Gary LeTellier said the city had designated the Augusta Aviation Commission as authority over the airport, not the commission, while federal laws govern fire protocol at the airport because of its role in interstate commerce.
“I don’t know how to put this delicately, but you don’t have the final say,” LeTellier said. “The federal airline administration has the final say.”
James said he had “nothing against the airport” but it only has two foam trucks and all resources should be dispatched to an incident until it is determined they are not needed.
Commissioners pointed to the need to resolve the issue Monday.
“I’m going to put my fireman hat back on,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, a former firefighter. “Especially when you’re talking about something that get as hot as jet fuel… We ought to be mindful enough to understand the seriousness of this.”
Commissioner Alvin Mason, who is running for mayor, said the city and airport ought to work together. “I hope it’s not an issue, a power struggle on anybody’s part,” he said. “Our main focus should be that our citizens are safe.”
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who appointed airport commission chairman Doug Lively to his post, said despite the disagreement things have been running smoothly at the airport.
“They’re held by a different set of rules,” Guilfoyle said.
LeTellier called the situation “an embarrassment” and said it was “not fair to characterize the airport as obstructionist” in the yearlong exchange.
Commissioners took no action on the dispute during committee meetings Monday but agreed to discuss it later.