Augusta fire chief looks back and ahead after first year

 

Twelve months have gone by in a flash for Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James.

“The first couple of weeks were tough,” James said of the time he served as interim chief before being voted in as fire chief Jan. 30, 2012.

James stepped in after the retirement of four people in the department’s upper ranks, including Chief Howard Willis, who was also Richmond County emergency management director.

The fire department had come under scrutiny and criticism after revelations of questionable side businesses and other leadership issues.

James recalled his early time as “very hectic,” divided between addressing pressing issues and planning the department’s future.

“I guess that’s what made the time fly by faster,” he said.

Among the issues he had to address were lack of communication and the breakdown of the team concept. Staff meetings, he said, were nonexistent and e-mailed bulletins moved through a chain of command that sometimes failed.

James now meets weekly with administrative staff and monthly with command staff. E-mailed bulletins go directly to all employees, he said.

Changes were also made to educational requirements and the promotion process. Despite requirements that each rank from lieutenant up must have a bachelor’s degree, some who were promoted did not have one. All must now meet new relaxed requirements, though employees were granted a grace period to catch up.

Now the only position that requires a bachelor’s degree is the deputy chief position. To make battalion chief, special operations chief, fire prevention captain, fire marshal or chief training officer, an applicant needs an associate’s degree or two years of college credit.

Also, each applicant has to spend at least three years in his rank before being eligible for promotions.

Promotions are also being handled in a more “timely manner,” James said.

“A few changes that were very, very important to me were to make changes to fire safety,” the chief said.

Those changes included ensuring all firefighters have radios to call for help before entering a burning structure, moving captains to the five ladder trucks and designating them as safety officers who can evaluate danger to firefighters on the scene. Before, a safety officer wasn’t always on the scene.

Captains have also been made trainers for their territories, freeing up the training staff to develop courses for the department.

The department is also placing more importance on physical fitness.

“The situation we’re putting firefighters in is very taxing,” James said. “We need to be sure firefighters can do their job, save people and property.”

Under new guidelines, which are in the final stages before being implemented, firefighters will be required to pass a yearly physical. Pre­viously, they had to pass a physical only when they were hired.

Also, 30 firefighters will be trained to be fitness trainers for their peers. Firefighters will have part of their day blocked off for fitness training.

James said he has no regrets about taking the job, but like every job, it has its good days and bad days.

The good days are when hard work and plans begin to come together or when employees are honored for heroism and hard work. It’s those days that help keep him focused on bad days, when conflicts arise in the department or firefighters or civilians are hurt.

“On tough days I try to remember what’s the purpose of me doing this job,” he said. “While the day may be tough, the outcome is good for (Augusta) as a whole.”

James is already looking at more changes in his second year, including putting out bids for new trucks and working on the department’s communication with residents.

“It has been busy. It almost doesn’t seem like a year has gone by,” James said. “It’s kind of been somewhat of a flash, but I still feel it’s an honor to serve the citizens.”

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CHRISTOPHER E. JAMES

AGE: 46

HOMETOWN: Asheville, N.C.

CAREER: 25 years at the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department

EDUCATION: Associate’s degree in applied health from Augusta Tech; bachelor’s degree in public administration from Brenau University; and master’s degree in business administration from Brenau University

FAMILY: Wife, Candyce; son, Eric

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