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Augusta Fire Department reverses policy on using aerial truck

Aerial truck will respond to all residential fire calls, regardless of building size or location

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An aerial ladder truck will accompany Augusta Fire Department vehicles responding to residential fires south of Tobacco Road after all.

Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan, who recently began working with the department on an improvement plan, said the policy was reversed Wednesday.

“We’ve put it back the way it was, and (will) do a cost-benefit analysis to see the best way to improve services,” Shanahan said. “I want to be 100 percent sure that the actions we do are the best possible actions.”

The policy, put in place sometime last month by Augusta Fire Chief Howard Willis, prompted a fearful outcry among some firefighters and some south side residents, including state Sen. Hardie Davis.

Willis initially insisted the change would not impact fire coverage on the south side, but after a meeting Monday with battalion chiefs and Shanahan, the department put in place an older vehicle loaded with ladders and a crew of three to replace the larger truck on south side house fire calls.

On Wednesday, that decision and the July decision were rescinded, and the department will go back to the earlier policy, to send Aerial Truck 4 out from Station 6 on Richmond Hill Road to all calls south of Tobacco Road, regardless of the height or size of threatened buildings.

A similar aerial vehicle routinely responds to all calls in other parts of the city, regardless of building height. Willis, who did not return a call Wednesday requesting comment, has said none of the changes impact the insurance rating in the area.

The policy never impacted large commercial buildings, factories or schools, to which an aerial truck always is dispatched.

Shanahan said it was unclear to him how or precisely why Willis changed the policy last month, but that he’d examine future changes more closely.

He’s beginning a regular series of meetings with fire department and 911 officials to review procedures and ensure they’re appropriate.

“Part of the plan is to streamline and make sure everything is as effective and efficient as it can be,” he said.

Shanahan said he maintained confidence in the chief, an employee since 1974 who also serves as the director of the Augusta Emergency Management Agency.

The vice president of the Augusta Professional Firefighters Association said he felt the entire episode revealed great weakness within the department’s upper ranks.

“It shows the lack of leadership and incompetency that we have within the fire administration,” said Charles Masters of the firefighters’ union. “They did a knee-jerk reaction thinking they could pull that over on south Augusta without the residents complaining.”

The alternate truck assigned Monday to supplement coverage in the area was no substitute for the aerial truck, Masters said.

“It’s a 1993 cab with a 1952 body on it,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said he trusted the judgment of Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who represents the area, but added, “All citizens need to be provided the same services.”

Guilfoyle said the aerial truck’s functions -- an elevated water gun, exposure protection for nearby buildings, equipment to force entry and telescoping ladders -- justify its use in all areas.

“It’s not fair when you start putting people’s lives at stake because of cost,” he said.


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