Airport, city's fire department at odds over fire jurisdiction

Officials in conflict on firefighting authority

A conflict dating to the 1996 consolidation charter of Augusta and Richmond County has called into question the firefighting jurisdiction at Augusta Regional Airport.

The city and airport are at odds over who assumes incident command during an emergency at the airport: Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department Chief Chris James or Augusta Regional Airport Fire Department Chief Willie Paulk.

Airport staff and the city’s legal department have tried to reach an agreement since November. The issue surfaced at Thursday’s regular monthly meeting of the Augusta Aviation Commission.

The consolidation act states that the chief of the Augusta Fire Department exercises official duties throughout Richmond County, with the exception of the city of Hephzibah.

Augusta Regional Executive Director Gary LeTellier said the local ordinance does not take into account the airport’s Federal Operating Certificate and emergency operations manual that require specialized aircraft rescue and firefighting training for airport fire personnel.

The city’s fire crews do not have required training for aviation-related incidents, LeTellier said. He added that the airport needs mutual aid from the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department in the event of a structure fire on airport grounds.

James, who was not present at Thursday’s meeting, said Deputy Chief Sterling Jones has the required specialized training and previously worked at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. James is working to train more city personnel for aircraft rescue and firefighting, partly so the department can respond to plane crashes in areas outside Augusta Regional.

Because an amendment to the consolidation charter is not likely to pass the Augusta Commission, the airport wants to adopt a memorandum of understanding between the two fire departments, including terms for incident command and mutual aid, LeTellier said.

“We have a fire department that meets all federal rules and state guidelines, too,” LeTellier said. “What we’d say is let us do our job except when we have an incident that we think that we aren’t properly staffed for.”

Following meetings with airport staff and city officials in November, city attorney Jody Smitherman, who addressed the airport commission on Thursday, drafted a memorandum of understanding but no action was taken to approve it.

On Thursday, airport staff presented a memorandum of understanding drafted by the airport’s legal counsel to the commission.

The commission did not vote on the memorandum. Instead, the governing board charged legal counsel and the fire chiefs from the city and the airport to convene, find a solution and present it at the September commission meeting.

James said he wants to work with the airport to find a solution, but the memorandum of understanding needs to be in accordance with the consolidation charter. He’d like to clarify who is in charge for different types of emergencies.

“Different folks have different expertise for different things,” James said. “If an emergency takes place, we will go out there and we will work with them.”

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