Almost one month after the devastating fire that destroyed the Marshall Square retirement community and tragically killed 91-year-old resident Dorothy Carpenter, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners is considering adopting a mutual aid agreement with the city of Augusta.
Under this agreement, the Columbia County Fire Services Division could call on the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department for assistance in the case of an emergency. Augusta’s fire department could also request assistance as outlined in this mutual aid agreement.
Columbia County Fire Rescue Chief Doug Cooper told members of the county’s Community and Emergency Services Committee on Tuesday that the two fire departments have been working on this mutual aid agreement for almost a year, long before the Marshall Square fire.
“It’s been through our attorney. It’s been through Augusta-Richmond County’s attorney,” Cooper said. “It seems like it has been going on for a year. It has at least been going on for the better part of a year.”
A few weeks ago, the Metro Spirit ran a cover story raising the question as to whether the Columbia County Fire Department’s response to the fire at Marshall Square was sufficient.
Specifically, some local veteran firefighters told the newspaper that they were surprised that Columbia County did not call for mutual aid from Augusta-Richmond County in order to have more aerial ladder trucks on the scene to help combat the intense fire.
However, Columbia County Battalion Chief Jeremy Wallen insisted that Columbia County had the necessary equipment on site to contain the fire.
“We had five pumper trucks and two aerial trucks at the scene,” Wallen said, referring to Columbia County Fire and Rescue. “The first alarm (at about 3:22 a.m.) brought three pumps and one aerial truck and some support vehicles. When they discovered the fire, they pulled the second alarm that sent two additional pumps and the next ladder truck. That was approximately 25 minutes later after the initial arrival.”
Upon arrival, Wallen said the fire department immediately began assisting with the evacuation of the Marshall Square residents with the help of the sheriff’s office and Gold Cross EMS.
It wasn’t until 6:13 a.m. that Richmond County received the mutual aid call from Columbia County on the day of the fire.
That’s about three hours after Columbia County was first made aware of the fire at Marshall Square. By 5 a.m., the fire had destroyed most of the central part of the three-story building, valued at more than $25 million, and was rapidly spreading to the eastern wing.
Wallen said Columbia County requested Richmond County’s assistance around 6:15 a.m. to cover some of the fire stations that were unmanned due to the fact that those crews were sent to the Marshall Square fire.
Fire Chief Doug Cooper told the Metro Spirit earlier this month that he completely stands by the actions of his department.
“I made the decision to call dispatch and ask if we could get two of our stations covered,” Cooper said. “These are two of our busiest stations. At the fire, I had six pumps and two ladder trucks and 104 firefighters. I had about everything that I needed over there.”
As far as any concerns over whether the department could have used another aerial ladder truck at the Marshall Square fire, Cooper said he felt that his department had all the equipment and manpower it needed.
“It was pretty much on fire all over the attic when we got there,” Cooper said. “And, actually, we had every available water source in the area utilized.”
During his presentation to the Community and Emergency Services Committee this week, Cooper said that even without the mutual aid agreement in place, all of the local fire departments work together in the case of an emergency.
“The whole fire service is a brotherhood, whether we have this agreement or not,” Cooper said. “If we need something, they’ll help us. If they need something, we’ll help them. It’s the same with Grovetown, Harlem and anybody.”
Columbia County Commissioner Bill Morris commended the fire chief on helping to develop the mutual aid agreement.
“It’s good to have a few good neighbors in a time of need,” Morris said, adding that Columbia County also has a similar agreement with McDuffie County.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said that the county also has some mutual aid agreements with other municipalities in South Carolina.
“Yes, we have a mutual aid agreement with Clarks Hill, Harlem, Grovetown and we are also a member of Georgia Mutual Aid Group, meaning that we can pull people from all across the state or we can go all across the state if we have the resources,” Cooper said. “We have been as far as Mississippi.”
Before the committee approved the mutual aid agreement, Morris wanted to thank Cooper for his department’s efforts during the Marshall Square fire.
“I think this is the appropriate time to commend you and your staff and all the coordination that went on a few weeks ago with the fire,” Morris said. “I’m convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that due to the efforts of your people, the EMTs, the sheriff’s department, the staff, (County Administrator) Scott Johnson and all those others, that lives were saved.”
Cooper said he greatly appreciated Morris’ comments.
“As you know, this was a total county effort,” Cooper said. “It was really good to see everybody, and I mean everybody, come together and work the way they did. That’s what made that possible.”