Originally created 07/10/02

Department lost sight of duties, panel says



Under the leadership of Chief Ronnie Few, the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department became sidetracked by public relations projects, often neglecting their daily duties, according to a presentment by the Richmond County special grand jury.

The report alleges the former chief poured thousands of dollars into special projects such as the Fire Service's biannual report and a tribute video titled Ronnie Few: Miracle Worker to "burnish" his community image.

According to the 124-page presentment, the policies, procedures and training exercises often took a back seat to promoting Mr. Few and the department.

Department personnel were often pulled away from daily duties to aid in public relations campaigns. The special grand jury alleges that when "firefighters had tired of having to 'volunteer' for the chief's pageants of self-promotion, fire administration used the rookies ... to prepare for the Media Phoenix Awards."

Former fire department Public Information Officer Katrice Bryant - who was hired to promote fire safety education, publicize department accomplishments and field media inquiries - instead spent her time writing "articles for various publications promoting the chief and managed a Web site that described the chief as nearly divine in his virtues."

Grand jurors allege that the repeated neglect of daily duties became evident when a Dec. 19, 1999, fire destroyed a 16-unit building at River Creek Apartment complex, off Center West Parkway.

The special grand jurors called the difficulties at River Creek "another example of understaffing and possibly poor training."

Firefighters encountered several problems while battling the blaze, including equipment management failure, lack of knowledge concerning hydrant locations and failure to properly connect water hoses, the report stated.

The fiasco quickly became a public relations nightmare for the department.

On Dec. 28, 1999, Chief Few instructed Arson Investigator G.B. Hannan to "find everything" he could "wrong with River Creek," the complex, not the fire.

At the apartment complex, Lt. Hannan performed a code inspection to look for any violations. The department's report stated fire officials had found "life safety code violations."

The special grand jury reports that "the difficulty with these violations is that these codes were instituted more than a decade after the complex was built."

The special grand jury called the final report, compiled by Ms. Bryant and published in January 2000, "factually deficient."

In a sub-section labeled by the special grand jurors as "The Cover-Up," fire officials contend there were "several contributing factors, none Fire Department related."

The report was sarcastically "dedicated" to then-complex manager Fran Hall, who has since resigned from that job.

Amid the controversy, Augusta Mayor Bob Young asked then-City Administrator Randy Oliver to produce a "governmental report" on the incident.

According to the report, when cornered by commissioners "(Chief Few) artfully avoided issues like his performance, knowledge of hydrant location and the quality of the suppression."

Reach Ashlee Griggs at (706) 823-3552, or ashlee.griggs@augustachronicle.com.