Tensions erupted this week during a debate over these two seemingly simple questions: If there is a fire at Augusta Regional Airport, who is in charge? And, if the fire alarm goes off, who should be notified?
Since this past April, there has been a battle raging over who is the official “incident commander” in the case of a fire at the airport: Augusta-Richmond County Fire Chief Chris James or Augusta Regional Airport Fire Chief Willie Paulk.
Apparently, it is an argument that is not going to be easily extinguished.
According to Gary LeTellier, the executive director of Augusta Regional Airport, the city has two laws on the books which are in direct conflict with each other.
One law states that James holds the title of “chief firefighter” within all the boundaries of Richmond County, including the airport.
But LeTellier insists another local law clearly states that the Augusta Aviation Commission has the responsibility for setting policy and administering what is referred to as the “federal operating certificate” for Augusta Regional Airport.
“This particular certificate is very specific about how fire services should be provided, who should provide them and how those people should be trained,” LeTellier told the Augusta Commission’s Public Safety Committee this week. “We are inspected at least once every year to make sure we are in compliance.”
Specifically, LeTellier said Paulk and his firefighters are trained primarily to handle aircraft rescue and fighting fires caused by hazardous materials and flammable liquids.
“We have some very limited structural fire fighting capabilities and we have always maintained a mutual-aid agreement with the city’s fire department for that purpose,” LeTellier said. “If we have a structural fire, we are going to call Chief James.”
However, LeTellier is not comfortable having James as the incident commander over all fires at the airport.
The Augusta Aviation Commission is also concerned about having to notify 911 Emergency Services in order to dispatch the airport’s firefighters.
“We don’t have a problem with 911 being notified, but our federal response time is three minutes,” LeTellier said. “You are lucky to get a dispatch in three minutes out of 911. They are very good, but aircraft fires reach lethal intensity much sooner than that.”
There is also an issue with who can be designated incident commander as it relates to interstate commerce at the airport, LeTellier explained.
“Just about everything we do and touch involves interstate commerce and that’s why we are federally regulated,” he said, explaining that anything involving airplanes deal with requirements by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Therefore, the city can’t simply name James as the incident commander and change the manner in which fires are handled at the airport, LeTellier said.
But Jody Smitherman, staff attorney for the city, insisted that the issue needs to be resolved so there isn’t confusion in the case of an emergency.
“The apparent conflict is between the Consolidation Act, which was not passed by the Augusta Commission, but was in fact passed by the state legislation which consolidated the City of Augusta and Richmond County,” she said. “In that act, it states that the fire chief of Augusta-Richmond County FIre Department shall be the chief firefighter throughout the bounds of Richmond County, which includes the airport.”
The Consolidation Act specifically preempts and eliminates any city or county ordinance in conflict with it, she said.
“So any law passed by the City of Augusta or Richmond County prior to the Consolidation Act which gave authority for firefighting to anybody other than the fire chief was eradicated as a result of that consolidation act passed by the state legislature,” she said.
However, James’ authority of the airport came into question earlier this year, Smitherman said.
“There became an incident in this case in which, when the fire department went to the airport in order to do an inspection, it was discovered that the alarms at the airport were in fact going to a cell phone as opposed to 911,” Smitherman said.
LeTellier immediately said that was not true, but Smitherman continued explaining the situation to the commission.
“That is how this issue came to light,” she said. “We began a discussion on who has jurisdiction, who has responsibilities because the federal law clearly states the governing authority of each jurisdiction is ultimately responsible for any accidents out at the airport.”
The city requested that all of the airport alarms alert the 911 center and that the Paulk would be incident commander in the case of an aircraft incident, but James would take the incident command in the case of a structural fire.
“We also came to the agreement that the airport fire department would have the authority to turn the August Fire Department around if they responded to an alarm first and they realized it was small enough they could handle it themselves,” she said.
In the airport’s defense, LeTellier said the Augusta Aviation Commission also proposed a resolution about a year ago, but it “never saw the light of day.”
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, a former firefighter, said this issue was much more important than simply a power struggle between the airport and the city.
“When there is a fire and an alarm goes off, we don’t care who started it. All we do is we want the fire out. That’s not just me, that is the fire departments all over the world,” Williams said. “But especially when you are talking about something that can get as hot as jet fuel. Stuff that just doesn’t stay in one position, that runs and sometimes water won’t even put out… I understand why this hasn’t already been worked out.”
For the people traveling every day at Augusta Regional Airport, the city and the airport need to settle their differences, Williams said.
“This is something we ought to be working together on versus trying to see who has the authority,” he said. “The consolidation bill ain’t going to put out no fire. When the alarm goes off, the guys who put this bill together ain’t going to wake up and ain’t going to come back and say, ‘Hey, y’all should do it this way.’ We ought to mindful enough to understand the seriousness of this and make sure we work together.”
James explained that he became concerned about the situation at the airport after an inspection earlier this year.
One of his fire chiefs called the 911 dispatch and told them he was testing the alarm at the airport, James said.
“He pulled the alarm. He waited the 90 seconds. He called dispatch back, and said, ‘Dispatch did you receive an alarm,’” James said.
The 911 Dispatch had not received the alarm notification.
“At that time, one of the firefighters from the airport who was there said, ‘No. That’s not how we do it. The call goes to Chief Paulk’s cell phone,’” James said, showing the commission a copy of the records from the alarm company that indicated a call was made to Paulk’s cell phone at the time of the inspection. “When the alarm went off it gives Chief Paulk’s cell phone number and it says ‘left a message.’ This is the information that we got from the alarm company.”
The thought that an emergency call went directly to a cell phone instead of the 911 Call Center was deeply concerning, James said.
He also felt that the airport’s fire department was understaffed.
“Now, I took the position as the chief firefighter that No. 1, the size of (the airport) is no different than the size of a school or a hotel or a big box store like Home Depot or something like that,” he said. “For a regular house fire, if your house catches on fire, we are going to send four pumps and two trucks so that we will have enough people to cover every position. Nothing against the airport, but they may have four people on shift. There are not enough resources there.”
LeTellier said that James was providing the commission with inaccurate information.
“I would like to set the record straight because there is some damaging things said today,” he said. “We have anywhere from five to eight firemen on duty at one time… We also dispatch our fire and police through a 24-hour dispatch center at the airport manned by the marshal’s department. So all alarms go to that dispatch center, and 911 is notified and, yeah, Chief Paulk is notified, too.”
The airport fully acknowledges that it is not prepared for huge structural fires, that’s why it has a mutual-aid agreement with the city’s fire department, he said.
“This whole thing was a surprise to me today,” LeTellier said. “And, candidly, I don’t think it should have been aired like this.”
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith, who was the one who requested the discussion, said that he has been working for months to help resolve the situation, but has gotten nowhere.
“Ever since day one, when I got sworn in up here, I have been trying to get this done,” Smith said. “Now, 11 months into my term, I have been fed up with this. I don’t want the public at risk.”
LeTellier agreed that the situation needed to be resolved, but he insisted it was unfair to characterize the airport as the “obstructionist.”
“I do think we can to fix this, but it isn’t going to get fixed by pointing fingers and calling names,” LeTellier said. “And Commissioner Smith, just so you know, I deeply resent your approach. I do.”
Smith said LeTellier was entitled to his opinion.
“Let me say that everybody has a boss and this government is the final boss of all funds in Augusta-Richmond County,” he said.
LeTellier didn’t take that threat kindly.
“That is true except for the fact, sir, that this is federal operating certificate,” LeTellier said. “And there is nothing that would convince me to break federal law.”