Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, the brother of fire Chief Howard Willis, has been running without department authorization a business that boards up homes after they have been damaged by fire, Deputy Fire Chief Mike Rogers admitted last week. Rogers said he learned last week Tommy Willis never asked permission before starting work in 2007 with the company, 1-800 Board Up, which employs four other firefighters.
The company was also provided on at least one occasion an unfair advantage over competitors by another member of the department, who broke policy.
After a Jan. 18 fire, a department investigator reported that he called 1-800 Board Up to secure the home, which Rogers said is a violation of fire department policy regarding soliciting business for companies.
“I had the 1-800 Board Up company come to the scene and secure the property for the owner,” Investigator Thomas Brown wrote in the investigation report.
Rogers, who is acting chief while Howard Willis is out for medical reasons, said this instance was an isolated one.
Rogers said it is up to the homeowner to choose a restoration company or boarding service after a fire and that fire department employees are not permitted to promote any one business.
“Under no circumstances do we allow our personnel to recommend any particular company to a homeowner,” Rogers said. “We’re not in the business of promoting one company over another.”
However, the department is giving 1-800 Board Up exposure other companies are not getting, as it allows the company’s advertising materials in fire stations. At Fire Station No. 13 on Lumpkin Road on Tuesday, a fire engine had a 1-800 Board Up hand sanitizer and a note pad on the dash. In the office, the station had a 1-800 Board Up tissue box and calendar on a desk.
There were no materials for competitors such as Paul Davis Restoration of Augusta, First General Services of the CSRA or MRC Construction.
Mark Hutchison, who owns Paul Davis Restoration, has been in the home restoration business for more than a decade but says he regularly loses customers because his main competitor has a link to the fire department.
AFTER A FIRE, a homeowner’s insurance company is responsible for calling one of the at least four local restoration companies to service a home.
But Hutchison and some other companies that provide this service say instead of letting homeowners call insurance companies, the fire department is calling 1-800 Board Up for them.
“It has cost me business,” said Hutchison, who said he hasn’t received a call from the fire department since Board Up was established in 2007. “Sometimes I get called to homes by insurance companies, and Board Up has already been there.”
Board Up franchise owner Greg Bowles said his company does not solicit business through its connections to the fire department.
Bowles said Tommy Willis and the four other firefighters run the franchise work while they are not on shift at the fire department. The five Board Up employees get paid when insurance companies reimburse the company for the boarding services.
If a homeowner does not have insurance, they do the service for free, Bowles said.
“All the firemen have second jobs,” Bowles said about Willis’ outside business. “Some of them are carpenters, some of them are painters. These guys do victim services.”
Bowles said firefighters can be paid $500 or more for boarding one house, depending on the size of the house, the amount of windows and the time it takes to do the job.
In addition to boarding homes, Tommy Willis said his company provides services such as bringing Gatorade and water to firefighters at a scene and helping homeowners find a hotel room after a fire.
Tommy Willis said he and his employees do not work for Board Up while on duty at the fire department.
He said if a homeowner does not have insurance, firefighters will call Augusta’s 911 dispatch, and a dispatcher will call one of the area boarding companies to the scene from a list of companies that they rotate through on turns.
ACCORDING TO AUGUSTA dispatch, no such list exists. A dispatch supervisor said Wednesday the fire department can request a board-up company be dispatched to the scene, but that the only one ever requested is 1-800 Board Up.
Augusta Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan said Wednesday that he has not received complaints from firefighters about conflicts of interests regarding Tommy Willis’ side business.
He said the city would not allow the department to promote one business, and if Tommy Willis is soliciting business through his role as a battalion chief he would like to know.
“Hopefully someone that’s working with (Willis) or a citizen will bring it to our attention,” Shanahan said. “We have to rely on professionalism, honor and integrity.”