Augusta Fire Department policy spreads board-up opportunities among local businesses

One year after four fire officials retired amid an investigation into a battalion chief using his position to promote a side business, the Augusta fire chief said new rules have done away with past conflicts of interest.

Homes still must be secured after a fire, but Chief Chris James said the way restoration companies find and service homeowners has changed completely.

Four chiefs retired in October 2011 after stories by The Augusta Chronicle revealed several firefighters routinely violated city and department policy by favoring one local restoration company, 1-800 Board Up, which was managed by Battalion Chief Tommy Willis.

At the time, the Augusta area had four restoration companies that offered services to board up windows and doors after a fire. For four years, several firefighters favored one of those companies, 1-800 Board Up, calling them directly to the scenes of fires.

“What was taking place before had been taking place so long it kind of became a norm for guys,” James said. “We had firefighters who didn’t even realize it
was wrong … Once they understood this was inappropriate and we put out the new policy, the switch was instant.”

The Board Up franchise, owned by Bowles Construction and managed by Willis, put calendars, hand sanitizer and tissue boxes with the business’s logo in fire stations.

Instead of calling 911 Dispatch to send a restoration company to a home, firefighters called Board Up directly, leaving little opportunity for the three other companies to compete in the market.

Since the four fire chiefs retired, the department implemented a new policy that keeps the market competitive and fair for restoration businesses in the city, James said.

The policy, implemented Oct. 14, 2011, forbids firefighters from recommending a company to a homeowner. All fire trucks carry a
list of the four local restoration companies, which firefighters give to the homeowner.

In case the property owner is not present, firefighters call 911 Dispatch, where a dispatcher rotates calling the companies to a scene.

Often, the property owner’s insurance company will call a board up company to the scene, James said, avoiding any involvement with the firefighters.

In the past 14 months, dispatch has called First General three times, MRC Construction twice, Paul Davis twice and 1-800 Board Up twice, according to dispatch logs obtained by The Chronicle in an open records request.

Susan Jernigan, a co-owner of First General Services of the CSRA, said she has gotten more calls for board up services since the implementation of the new policy.

Jernigan said she also has received about 20 board up jobs directly from homeowner’s insurance companies.

“We have seen an increase in the rotation,” Jernigan said. “Probably not the extent we would like it to be.”

The unfair access Board Up received also affected other aspects of its competitors’ restoration business, competitors said. The businesses not only board up windows, but also provide water mitigation, mold servicing and construction work to repair homes.

Typically, the company that has access to the homeowner at the initial point of boarding up windows can also offer repair services down the road. MRC Construction co-owner Doug McMonigle said his company had to depend on other aspects such as remodeling and new construction while Board Up dominated the market.

Greg Bowles, the owner of Bowles Construction and the local Board Up franchise, said he ended his franchise’s contract in August and no longer runs Board Up in Augusta.

“We paid to get out,” Bowles said. “We wanted away from it. We quit going to the fire houses after all that fiasco happened.”

He said after the articles revealed the department’s conflict of interest, Board Up did not receive or respond to any calls from the fire department. Logs show dispatch called Board Up once on Aug. 7 and again on Aug. 26, but those fire jobs were passed on to other companies.

Bowles said many firefighters have part-time jobs and Willis simply got caught in the politics of the city.

Amid the investigation into Board Up, Fire Chief Howard Willis; his two chief deputies, Mike Rogers and Carl Scott; and Tommy
Willis retired.

Although he was given an advantage over other companies, Bowles said his franchise provided a
valuable service to the public. He said Board Up often secured vacant or condemned houses free of charge and gave complimentary service to homeowners without insurance.

“We lost money at it,” Bowles said. “Everybody wanted to slap our hands and make us look bad. I don’t think there was anything wrong with what we were doing. We were providing a service. Now that service is gone.”

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