Investigation finds Augusta fire department employees violated policy

Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department employees were found to have violated policies in three of four investigations launched this month, including a battalion chief who used his position to promote a side business, Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan said during a news conference Wednesday.

No employees have been punished, Shanahan said, because he has to review the Augusta Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual to identify proper disciplinary action.

Shanahan and Acting Fire Chief Chris James said they are now working to ensure similar violations don’t happen in the future as the department moves on to new leadership, because four top fire chiefs have announced their retirements.

“When things like this happen, you hate it,” Shanahan said. “But the benefit of it is … we’ve been able to identify some problems, and we’re fixing them.”

In the investigation into 1-800-BoardUp, a side business managed by Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, Shanahan said employees have been promoting the business at fire scenes for four years. The violations were brought to light by an Augusta Chronicle investigation earlier this month.

City policy prohibits employees from recommending any business to residents, but firefighters have regularly called BoardUp to the scene to secure homes damaged by fires, creating an unfair advantage over competitors.

“It had been going on for a long time because four years ago, sometime in the past, someone said to do this,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan said Willis used city computers and printers for BoardUp work, which is another violation of the conflict-of-interest policy.

When interviewed, Willis said he never worked for BoardUp while on duty at the fire department but that he thought he was allowed to attend to personal business at work, which was clearly a conflicting statement, Shanahan said.

“He wasn’t being as accurate as he could be,” Shanahan said.

Because Willis submitted a retirement letter earlier this month effective Nov. 1, he won’t be disciplined.

During the investigation, Fire Chief Howard Willis, Tommy Willis’ brother, also announced he would retire after his medical leave is complete, and two deputy chiefs, Carl Scott and Mike Rogers, announced they would retire Nov. 1.

To ensure the violations don’t continue, James said he has compiled a list of all local companies that provide boarding services to be handed to homeowners at fire scenes.

In his investigation into a January house fire that left a firefighter severely injured, Shanahan confirmed several safety violations by firefighters revealed by a Chronicle article in September.

When the engine crew arrived at the house, the
homeowner initially said the fire had been extinguished. Shanahan said firefighter Steven Jenne was then asked to go into the home alone with a hand extinguisher to check, a violation of the department’s policy requiring that at least two firefighters enter a building at any time.

When Jenne realized the fire was not out and could not be controlled, he left the house and requested a hose, Shanahan said.

After Jenne re-entered the house with the crew, Shanahan said Jenne became trapped in the house filled with smoke and the required “accountability check” was never conducted to find out where he was.

After crawling through a broken window to escape, Jenne was rushed to a hospital and later diagnosed with reactive airway disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Despite his injuries, the department never filed an accident report.

Statements made by Battalion Chief John Sheridan in September conflict with Shanahan’s findings. Sheridan told The Chronicle that an investigation was ongoing but not yet completed.

James said he is now enforcing a policy that will require the department to complete an after-accident report immediately after any firefighter is injured.

Although the National Fire Protection Association recommends U.S. fire departments document all accidents and injuries, James said the Augusta Fire Department previously had no policy in place to enforce reports be done.

“That’s where the problem with administering any type of disciplinary action would be hard,” James said. “Until now, I don’t know if there was a policy to go by. I’m planning to fix it, and fix it big time.”

The third violation Shanahan confirmed was the sending and receiving of pornographic jokes and pictures by Support Services Assistant Chief Jack Hanley last year. Shanahan nor James could describe the type of image Hanley sent on city computers, and the assistant chief has not been disciplined.

An investigation into misuse of city vehicles was the one incident that Shanahan called unfounded.

Deputy Fire Chief Carl Scott had used a vehicle to attend a meeting in Columbia and stopped at his aunt’s house on the way back to Augusta to use the restroom. An anonymous person photographed Scott’s car at the home, but Shanahan said it was not a violation because Scott was there for nine minutes.

Fire department findings delayed again
Acting Augusta fire chief takes on department fraught with issues
Augusta investigating fire department for pornography use, city vehicle misuse
Investigation into Augusta fire leaders continues despite retirements
More Augusta fire officials quit
Augusta fire chief stepping down, administrator says
Augusta fire battalion chief placed on administrative leave during investigation
Augusta fire battalion chief's cleanup business presents conflict

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