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Acting Augusta fire chief takes on department fraught with issues

Improving leadership, fitness on agenda

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Taking hold of a department fraught with problems, acting Fire Chief Chris James says the department has issues that must be addressed but believes none will affect the city’s fire protection.

Acting Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James said the department will no longer recommend a board-up service that was run by a former battalion chief.  Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff
Acting Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James said the department will no longer recommend a board-up service that was run by a former battalion chief.

“There are some changes that need to be made,” he said, “but citizens will still get fire trucks when the alarm goes off. None of that will stop.”

Changes include implementing a policy against firefighters recommending or even contacting 1-800 Board Up, a franchise owned by Bowles Construction but run by former Battalion Chief Tommy Willis. Instead, they’ll provide fire victims with a flier listing phone numbers of board-up companies.

Willis turned in a letter of retirement last week after being placed on leave while the city investigates claims that he used his position and city resources to steer board-up business exclusively to the company. His brother, Fire Chief Howard Willis, and Deputy Chiefs Carl Scott and Mike Rogers also agreed to retire last week.

James acknowledged the
department has had leadership issues. He didn’t deny allegations that the department of 300 recently held its first staff meeting in at least two years.

“If there’s no meetings, there’s no communications, what happens is there’s a disconnect within the ranks. They don’t have the buy-in. Once they get that feeling, they opt out,” he said.

One of the first things James said he will do is improve firefighter fitness, which was resisted and even discarded by Howard Willis several years ago after those at upper levels refused to submit to it. The department is in the process of implementing a wellness program that will start with firefighters getting a baseline physical.

“The test will definitely set us up for success when it comes to the firefighters physically being able to handle the job,” said James, who as training chief is responsible for administering a fitness exam to new recruits and ensuring incumbent firefighters meet annual training requirements.

Getting the force healthy will require a culture change, James acknowledges. Stations tend to cook and dine together, and those who opt for healthier meals sometimes are scorned, he said.

James’ willingness to take on the issues doesn’t guarantee he will get the chief’s job full-time, and history shows hiring for the top fire post in Augusta to be a messy affair. Augusta interviewed at least two external candidates for chief in 2005 before hiring Howard Willis – then Emergency Management Agency director – to fill a vacancy left when Al Gillespie departed after three years to be chief in North Las Vegas, Nev., because the Augusta Commission would not give him a written contract.

Gillespie, hired after several commission votes to select him failed, replaced Bernard Mack, who left after just three months on the job, citing personal issues and city politics. Mack replaced Ronnie Few, the city’s first black chief, who became the subject of a scathing report by a Richmond County special grand jury, though he was never indicted.

City Administrator Fred Russell, who initially said he’d have a candidate from a “national search” within four months, said Friday he was only “80 percent sure” a national search would be conducted.

Another issue expected to come into play is whether to hire separate people to head the fire department and EMA. Commissioner Al Mason said Augusta’s size and proximity to large industry, rail lines and other potential hazards makes having separate personnel mandatory, but Russell and Commissioner Joe Jackson have defended combining the positions, saying it has saved money.

With the recent scandals, which includes allegations and ongoing investigations into misuse of city vehicles and the dissemination of pornography on fire department computers, none on the commission disagree that change is necessary. Jackson, the head of the city’s public safety committee, said the city should look to national fire standards.

Commissioner Bill Lockett, a retired federal investigator, said the department “should have had a thorough investigation a long time ago.”

James, who will remain acting chief until the commission decides who will hold the title, said the department will push through and attain the goals he spoke of Friday.

“A lot of the things that we’ve discussed will happen, with me or with someone else,” he said. “As long as we’re in this period of dysfunction, with the press and the bad things, it will be difficult to move, but we’ll still move forward.”

Comments (13) Add comment
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Asitisinaug
3
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Asitisinaug 10/16/11 - 04:52 am
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Good Luck. EMA for a city of

Good Luck. EMA for a city of this size is very important. We lost a great asset to Columbia County in Pam Tucker. Maybe she should be the EMA director of the CSRA and paid by the counties but EMA should not be the responsibility of the Fire Chief as he/she will have more than enough to deal with once hired.

Little Lamb
47005
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Little Lamb 10/16/11 - 07:12 am
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Read the audacity of

Read the audacity of Commissioner Lockett above. He said the fire department should have had an investigation a long time ago. Well, Lockett has been commissioner almost two years and he never spent one moment working with his colleagues to authorize an investigation. Monday morning quarterback.

Riverman1
87028
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Riverman1 10/16/11 - 08:21 am
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James seems like a competent

James seems like a competent individual who is aware of the issues.

Dipshot
-5
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Dipshot 10/16/11 - 08:48 am
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I like him. Make the job

I like him. Make the job permanent. Well Col Co is happy to be under the Pam Tucker Dome.

Riverman1
87028
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Riverman1 10/16/11 - 09:27 am
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Pam Tucker has been the

Pam Tucker has been the defacto EMA director of the CSRA for a while. For instance, she met with August Tech and International Paper last week to advise and instruct. She is something and has a way of overwhelming you with her energy if you have an issue with her. Ha, do I know that.

But she is getting ready to retire. In addition, it's not fair for Columbia County footing the bill for the larger Richmond County's EMA director. I didn't want two separate positions for Fire Chief and EMA director in Richmond County due to financial concerns, but Tucker believes it's necessary and I'll defer to her judgment...like I have a choice when debating her.

seenitB4
90976
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seenitB4 10/16/11 - 09:35 am
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river...I'm glad you know how

river...I'm glad you know how to defer to a very intelligent woman....
everything I've heard about her has been positive..:)

Riverman1
87028
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Riverman1 10/16/11 - 09:53 am
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0
SeenIt, you wouldn't catch me

SeenIt, you wouldn't catch me arguing with you either.

seenitB4
90976
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seenitB4 10/16/11 - 10:02 am
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You are brilliant in soo

You are brilliant in soo many ways RM....

The tables are turning in Augusta......this is just the beginning...some are awaken now....new leaders are coming.

Dipshot
-5
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Dipshot 10/16/11 - 11:44 am
0
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btw, who coined the saying,

btw, who coined the saying, The Pam Tucker Dome?

Riverman1
87028
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Riverman1 10/16/11 - 02:59 pm
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Dipshot, the name came about

Dipshot, the name came about when she tried to put a large plastic sheet over the government complex before an expected hail storm. She said it would be like a giant dome and keep the hail off. She was outside staking down one side when the winds came and the last sight of the Pam Tucker Dome was as it soared upwards and moved towards the lake. You know it was kind of a Balloon Boy type incident. She actually hung on as it started to go up off the ground. Barry Paschal was there writing a report for the paper and grabbed her by one leg. One stocking came off and he almost lost her before getting a firmer grip and pulling her back down to earth That's how the name came about.

alfrrst4
18
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alfrrst4 02/25/13 - 12:27 pm
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no comment

no comment

americafirst
966
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americafirst 10/16/11 - 07:05 pm
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"those who opt for healthier

"those who opt for healthier meals sometimes are scorned." Are they 10 years old?

PBrig822
64
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PBrig822 10/17/11 - 12:27 am
0
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So nothing says you have to

So nothing says you have to eat what everyone else in the house is eating. I know plenty of firefighters who take their own meals for the day.

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