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Augusta fire battalion chief's cleanup business presents conflict

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An Augusta fire cleanup business run by the Augusta fire chief’s brother, who is an assistant battalion chief, is in violation of that department’s policy and that of the city.

A clipboard with a notepad for 1-800 Board Up sits on the dashboard of a fire truck at Fire Station No. 13 on Lumkin Road.  Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
A clipboard with a notepad for 1-800 Board Up sits on the dashboard of a fire truck at Fire Station No. 13 on Lumkin Road.

Tracey McManus
Reporter
Twitter: @aug_mcmanus
E-mail | 706-823-3424

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.”

CONFLICT OF INTEREST POLICY

The Augusta Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual states employees have an obligation to avoid engaging in activities that might be conflicts of interests.

According to Section 800.023, “An actual or potential conflict of interest occurs when an employee is in a position to influence a decision that may result in a personal gain for that employee or for a relative as a result of Augusta, Georgia’s business dealings. For the purposes of this policy, a relative is any person who is related by blood or marriage, or whose relationship with the employee is similar to that of persons who are related by blood or marriage.”

ACCESS DENIED

The Chronicle asked to review other fire reports to see if investigators reported calling 1-800 Board Up to the scene of a fire on more occasions, but Deputy Fire Chief Mike Rogers denied a reporter’s request to search the department’s database.

The Chronicle filed an open records request for the documents Sept. 21 but was told by the city legal department the fire reports and investigations for the last 21 months would cost $1,100 to produce.

The Chronicle requested a reporter be able to view the documents by running a computer query instead of printing them, excluding any confidential medical information forms, but Rogers said he was unable to allow access to the database.

Comments (51) Add comment
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willie7
1053
Points
willie7 10/01/11 - 11:11 pm
0
0
This doesn't smell too
Unpublished

This doesn't smell too good!!!!!

PR
0
Points
PR 10/01/11 - 11:11 pm
0
0
Dirty politics and business
Unpublished

Dirty politics and business in Augusta? Who would ever thought this could happen? Just another example of why the fire chief needs to retire and the AFD need a major shake up in management. Of course nothing will happen because Deke the Meek and the council have no guts and won't go after a white boy. If they were black you can bet they would be reprimanded. Good ol' boy politics are alive and well at AFD!

Vito45
-2
Points
Vito45 10/01/11 - 11:15 pm
0
0
Rut Roh.....Fat's in the fire

Rut Roh.....Fat's in the fire now!!

my.voice
6094
Points
my.voice 10/01/11 - 11:20 pm
0
0
Here's an idea: cross

Here's an idea: cross reference this story with the Gerri Sams to see if ole GS can cut us a break on the print cost for the report. We don't need it in linen, plain ole copy paper is fine!

Dipshot
-5
Points
Dipshot 10/01/11 - 11:25 pm
0
0
Here we go again.

Here we go again.

Dipshot
-5
Points
Dipshot 10/01/11 - 11:26 pm
0
0
Nepotism in Augusta

Nepotism in Augusta government? Surely you jest?

Iwannakno
1533
Points
Iwannakno 10/01/11 - 11:53 pm
0
0
Different day same
Unpublished

Different day same politics...shocked? No!

GaStang22
910
Points
GaStang22 10/02/11 - 12:01 am
0
0
Of course they denied access,
Unpublished

Of course they denied access, guilty people do that.

Asitisinaug
4
Points
Asitisinaug 10/02/11 - 04:14 am
0
1
Deputy Fire Chief Mike Rogers

Deputy Fire Chief Mike Rogers can't be trusted as far as you can see him and would do just about anything for the Chief's job. He isn't even qualified for the position he is in. Change is definetly needed within the administration of the Fire Department. Sound's like they are also trying to say Investigator Brown did wrong by simply trying to ensure that a homeowners property was boarded up and even put it in his report which clearly shows it is simply a common practice. You have to love how those in charge try to push all of the bad downhill as far as they can and in the case of DFC Rogers, he will throw anyone and everyone under the bus trying to save himself and his idiotic policies.

Riverman1
114441
Points
Riverman1 10/02/11 - 05:17 am
0
0
Let's put things in

Let's put things in perspective. We have 5 firemen who do a little work on the side boarding up houses for $500. The Sheriff's Office runs the specials for paid security and how much is involved? 'Splain the difference.

EMS6465
0
Points
EMS6465 10/02/11 - 05:33 am
0
0
Riverman1 The difference

Riverman1 The difference is right now they are looking for excuses to get rid of an outdated fire chief and will report anything even the smallest thing to the press to get him out and embarass him.

Justin4466
43
Points
Justin4466 10/02/11 - 06:22 am
0
0
Good question Brad, I guess

Good question Brad, I guess the old adage is true, "follow the money" and you can see why decisions are made. By the who is this Bowles guy?

Pu239
284
Points
Pu239 10/02/11 - 11:47 am
0
0
I wonder if folks realize
Unpublished

I wonder if folks realize that 1800 Boardup is a franchise? They work with firefighters all over the country. I do think the 0533 post by EMS6465 nails the issue.

david jennings
625
Points
david jennings 10/02/11 - 11:52 am
0
0
I come down on the side of

I come down on the side of ems6465.I just get a gut feeling there is more to this.The good men and women in the RCSD and FD do a heck of a job for not so great pay and are forced to work extra jobs to make ends meet.5 hundred bucks to secure a damaged structure doesnt sound like anyones likely to get rich doing it.Ive been in construction most of my life and my low bid would be $1000.00.

GaStang22
910
Points
GaStang22 10/02/11 - 12:01 pm
0
0
Riverman, the difference is I
Unpublished

Riverman, the difference is I would imagine, it is against the rules to solicite for an outside buisness and give them an unfair advantage that other businesses do not have in a desperat situation that needs to be taken care of immediately. If I am correct, they city also can not call the same tow company over and over, or suggest they use a certain one at every accident scene. With the cops and specials though,I don't think they go out to every place that has trouble and say hey, you need security call this deputy or this security company, they just suggest getting security in the future... dadada. The cops and specials run a public service that is unique, I would imagine, and think it wouldn't be a bad idea for the fire department itself run "specials" for all the firemen who work there to have a chance to do boarding up place. But this is an independant national company Not work fairly done and offered to any fire fighters, just the select few who work for this guys outside franchised national business. Totally not the same. =)

Lovin Dis Gusta
0
Points
Lovin Dis Gusta 10/02/11 - 12:24 pm
0
0
I personally like my

I personally like my firefighters to fight fires. If the firefighters do not make enough money they should find another fulltime job. I am sure they knew the risk/reward before the took the job. Just cause they are not making enough money the can not break policy/law.I will get a professional to work on my house. Not a Hack.

Cassandra Harris
-1
Points
Cassandra Harris 10/02/11 - 12:43 pm
0
0
Dis Gusta - the firefighters

Dis Gusta - the firefighters DO fight fires and a whole lot more. My son works as a fire team EMT first responder also. They work on 24 hour shifts. What they do on their off days does not affect their job, but because of the nature of their work, they must follow the rules as to reporting their second job. My son also has a second job as an ambulance EMT. Now if you want all the firefighters to get other jobs (because this job is altruistic and does not by itself pay the bills) then I hope you enjoy putting out the fire at your house all by yourself or extracting yourself from your wreck that requires the jaws of life and first responding your own emergency because if they follow your advice, we will have no full time police or firefighters at all, and believe me in a city with the amount of crime and fires as Augusta has, you do not want to rely strictly on volunteers.

Pu239
284
Points
Pu239 10/02/11 - 05:48 pm
0
0
Lovin Dis Gusta? Would it be
Unpublished

Lovin Dis Gusta? Would it be possible that you have a personal involvement with a competing contractor?

Pu239
284
Points
Pu239 10/02/11 - 01:32 pm
0
0
Let's see...who pays the
Unpublished

Let's see...who pays the board up fee? That would be the insurance company (given the victim has insurance) which I suspect to be in the high 90 percentile, do you think the insurance company is going to pay the board up fee under the table? The side business mentioned is a franchise, so there has to be some accounting method in place. I smell a witch hunt.

harley_52
31494
Points
harley_52 10/02/11 - 01:38 pm
0
0
Hey Riverman.... You

Hey Riverman.... You asked...."The Sheriff's Office runs the specials for paid security and how much is involved? 'Splain the difference."

I think off-duty police officers are paid by the hour, not by the fight broken up. They get paid whether there's twenty disturbances or none, right?

I wonder if the cost to board-up a structure increases in some sort of linear fashion with the amount of the structure that is damaged? Surely it does. Some might claim that could be a disincentive to arrive quickly on the scene, or to put the fire out as quickly as possible.

Maybe not, but you did ask ....

Lovin Dis Gusta
0
Points
Lovin Dis Gusta 10/02/11 - 01:42 pm
0
0
No connection Cassandra just

No connection Cassandra just seen their shotty work. I do not care if they have second jobs. Do it LEGALLY! Your son is an honorable man I applaud him for his choice of jobs. However, he signed up for the job knowing the PAY. So do not whine about it you or him. Just a footnote my brother and Grandfather are/were firefighters and they both agree they knew what they signed up for. They never once tried to break policy or laws they just put out fires and rescued people cause the did/ do LOVE their job.

I see the good ol boys gettin richer
0
Points
0
0
It's like having a police man

It's like having a police man who is also your attorney, he arrests you for some BS charge then you have to hire him to defend you, the cop has an INCENTIVE to send work his own way by arresting you. Same thing here. Let's bust out a few windows that may or may not need to be done, then we or off duty "Billy Bob" can get paid on the side to "board it up". Persons still employed as firemen should NEVER be allowed to participate in the emergency services or rebuilding of fire damaged structures as "sub contractors" when off duty, even in counites which they do not work. It's better than "girls gone wild" it's the "good ol boy network gone wild". And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are several VERY VERY WELL connected people here, let's sit back and see if the truth get burried or if they keep digging and find out just how big this cornering the market issue REALLY is .

Cassandra Harris
-1
Points
Cassandra Harris 10/02/11 - 02:22 pm
0
0
Dis Gusta - are you referring

Dis Gusta - are you referring to "shotty (sic) work" as the work of the firemen in their jobs or the work of the side job that is the topic of this article? IF you are talking about the job that is the topic of this article his side job keeping him from being a competent firefighter is not the issue at hand. As a battalion chief, he is not even involved in fighting fires. However his personal involvement is a problem for several reasons

1. He has not cleared the business by reporting it to the proper channels and getting an OK for the side business. (yes, my son had to get permission to work as an EMT and his fellow firefighters I know had to get permission for their side jobs)

2. Given his position within the force, his job as a firefighter and his relation to the Fire Chief, he has an unfair advantage over competitors within the field of fire clean up.

3. His very job creates a reasonable question of bias as to how to handle fires as he could profit the more destructive the fire.

4. His company has benefited by illegally soliciting business by having firefighters and fire inspectors tell fire victims to call his company for their needs.

As to my son doing his job, yes he knew the pay and that is why he works a second job. There is nothing illegal about having a side job as a fire or police first responder so long as you follow correct protocol and the job does not interfere with the person's official duties and does not create unfair advantage, conflict of interest or bias.

Funny given the wording you used in your initial post that you should accuse anyone of whining. I am not whining, just responding to your remarks, which seem to cast aspersion on our firefighters and seem to imply that they should not be allowed to have a second job. Like I said, you can always put out your own catastrophic fire or medically first respond your own accident, shooting or attack.

Riverman1
114441
Points
Riverman1 10/02/11 - 02:41 pm
0
0
Harley said, "Hey

Harley said, "Hey Riverman.... You asked...."The Sheriff's Office runs the specials for paid security and how much is involved? 'Splain the difference."

I think off-duty police officers are paid by the hour, not by the fight broken up. They get paid whether there's twenty disturbances or none, right?

I wonder if the cost to board-up a structure increases in some sort of linear fashion with the amount of the structure that is damaged? Surely it does. Some might claim that could be a disincentive to arrive quickly on the scene, or to put the fire out as quickly as possible."

Harely, the problem is the same exact scenario does apply. Businesses that don't purchase the extra security via the Sheriff's Office of off duty policemen are told if they have trouble of some kind they need to sign up for special protection and enforcement.

I'm a firm believer in the power of capitalism and the money incentive. What do you think the effects of the incentive would be if businesses that have a problem will pay extra?

GaStang22
910
Points
GaStang22 10/02/11 - 02:57 pm
0
0
Yes, from their own officers,
Unpublished

Yes, from their own officers, not an outside specific civilian company. This would be much different to me if all the fire fighters were in on this opportunity through the fire department, not an outside franchise.

harley_52
31494
Points
harley_52 10/02/11 - 03:04 pm
0
0
Sorry Riverman, I'm not sure

Sorry Riverman, I'm not sure I'm following you. Are you saying people who pay rent-a-cops for their event pay them on the basis of how many problems they deal with? Not by the hour?

Riverman1
114441
Points
Riverman1 10/02/11 - 03:19 pm
0
0
Harley, whether the off duty

Harley, whether the off duty policemen are paid by the hour or by the problem doesn't matter. It's the necessary conditions necessary to hire them. If the conditions are not right, they won't be hired. Law enforcement or lack of can create the conditions and that's the problem.

GaStang, the specials deals are operated as a private enterprise that doesn't answer to the taxpayers. Matter of fact, we might argue if requests for specials were referred to private security companies on an equal basis it would be better.

I'm not taking up for this Fire Dept. thing with Willis, but I don't see much difference with the Sheriff's Dept. Both departments' men are underpaid and this is a way for them to come up with some extra money. If there are only 5 firefighters in this deal, maybe they need to include everyone who wants to participate, although I'm not sure there would be enough work.

justwaiting
0
Points
justwaiting 10/02/11 - 03:35 pm
0
0
I agree with EMS6465! This

I agree with EMS6465! This seems like a witch hunt! Just look at the article.
“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.
So even he says the fd has done it before and he was given opportunity!!

tigerlily01
0
Points
tigerlily01 10/02/11 - 04:04 pm
0
0
These OFF DUTY firefighters

These OFF DUTY firefighters DO NOT get paid $500.00 when they go to a board up. They first of all provide victims services. They help the homeowner in anyway they can. They DO NOT force the homeowner to use 800-Board-UP. As far as soliciting, people advertise companies product/services on a daily basis but no-one ever thinks anything about it. How did all this turn into a police department issue? ALL EMS have the right to have other jobs, if they want. People complain about Firefighters/Police Officers/EMTs/Paramedics not getting to the scene fast enough or why they did not do this or that. They ALL are doing everything they can to the best of their ability for the PUBLIC. Puttting their lives on the line and have died in the line of duty but they are not appreciated for it. I know I will be bashed for these comments but I really do not care. People on the outside are looking in on the 800-Board Up service and judging it. Get all the facts before making accusations. Oh, I forgot, guilty until proven innocent.

Cassandra Harris
-1
Points
Cassandra Harris 10/02/11 - 04:05 pm
0
0
justwaiting - you might want

justwaiting - you might want to go back and read the article again. Hutchinson owns a restoration business. He is making claims of unfair business practices based on the following:

1. He alleges that firefighters are telling the homeowners to call Willis's business instead of waiting for their insurance company to give them an unbiased list of service providers (as per law) and the homeowner choosing from that list. (the article supports that this has been verified at least in the case of one fire inspector)

Mr. Hutchinson has been called to a home by the homeowner's insurance company only to find that Willis's company has already been previously notified and completed the work.

2. Willis claims that for homeowners who do not have homeowner's insurance that 911 will provide a list, but no such list exists.

3. According to 911 dispatch, if the homeowner has no insurance, 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.

4. Fire stations have been found to have advertising materials for Willis's company, but no competitor's advertising materials.

5. "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." An unfair advantage over his competition that is afforded due to his position and having knowledge of all fires taking place in Richmond County

In other words, it appears that Willis is taking advantage of his position as battalion chief of the department to make profiteer off of people's tragedy over the services of his competition. Completely illegal. Not a witch hunt.

As to whether these allegations are true is to be seen. However, if they are true, then laws have potentially been broken.

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