In the almost five weeks since embattled Fire Chief Howard Willis, his brother and two deputy chiefs abruptly announced their retirement plans, Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department is changing rapidly in some areas and substantially in others.
On Thursday, the city advertised nationally for a new chief and wants to fill the position quickly, according to Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan, who has been working with interim Chief Chris James on making substantial organizational changes to the 300-member department.
“In order to make everything work with a reorganization, we need to get a permanent, full-time chief,” Shanahan said, adding he hopes James applies for the job.
At the time of the resignations, James, the chief over firefighter training, was the only member among the department’s upper ranks who held the bachelor’s degree required in the position’s job description.
James also holds a master’s degree, and the revised job description that went out Thursday specifies that a master’s is preferred, as is paramedic-level certification. Seven or more years’ experience as a deputy or battalion chief in a department of similar size is required for the job, whose salary maximum is listed as $130,000.
The reorganization, which awaits City Administrator Fred Russell’s Wednesday return from a job interview in Sarasota County, Fla., for final approval, will likely mean streamlining the department from four battalions to three, Shanahan said.
The change, which won’t affect fire coverage, means “less supervisors,” he said. “The goal is to look at how we can increase our efficiency, smooth out the command structure.”
Currently, each battalion has three chiefs, each of whom supervises four to six fire stations during one of three daily shifts. Each of the four battalions is assigned to an area of Richmond County – downtown, west, south-central and south-rural. Moving from four battalions to three likely means eliminating three battalion chief positions, all but one of which is filled now.
The one that remains vacant is that of former battalion chief Tommy Willis, who agreed to retire while on administrative leave during an investigation into his using his position and city resources to steer nearly all fire restoration business to his company, 1-800-BoardUp. His brother, former fire chief Howard Willis, also left the department during the flurry of retirements, and according to City Administrator Fred Russell, likely will be paid for unused vacation leave through the end of the year.
The department remains exempt from the city’s nepotism policy, which prohibits relatives from supervising one another, although the Willises were cited in some Augusta commissioners’ calls to extend the policy to the fire department.
Also in the works are changes in overtime policy, which had allowed ranking personnel to be paid costlier overtime to cover for firefighters, Shanahan said.
James already has implemented a revised policy requiring an investigation into all firefighter injuries, he said.
In January, firefighter Steven Jenne was injured and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after he was left alone in a burning house by the rest of the command fighting the fire. An investigation wasn’t begun until months later.
That incident was among others that prompted Augusta Firefighters Association spokesman Charles Masters to call for the resignation of the department’s top three ranking officials at an Augusta Commission meeting two months ago as he cited morale, safety and leadership issues.
Jenne has returned to work and is assigned to light duty in the Emergency Management Agency office, Shanahan said.
The new fire chief won’t necessarily also hold the position of EMA director, as Howard Willis did. Shanahan said the city has not decided whether to hire a separate EMA director and is only advertising for a fire chief.
“Chief James is looking at that and recommendations will be made,” he said.