Late last week, Columbia County announced two new interim positions that will oversee key public safety departments.
First, Fire Chief Jeremy Wallen, who was recently promoted to deputy chief, is now serving as interim fire chief following the recent retirement of Columbia County Fire Rescue Chief Doug Cooper.
Next, Andy Leanza, the deputy EMA director, will now serve as interim EMA director following the abrupt resignation of longtime EMA Director Pam Tucker.
Now, both of these individuals seem qualified to serve in their interim positions.
Wallen has been with the Columbia County Fire Department for 23 years and is a Georgia firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician.
Meanwhile, Leanza is a graduate of the Clayton County Regional Law Enforcement Academy and holds a State of Georgia Advanced Level Emergency Management Certification. He is a GEMA academy instructor and prior to working for Columbia County, he was employed by GEMA as the Area 5 Field Coordinator serving Columbia County and 23 others in the region.
All of that looks great on paper, but both individuals are walking into a hotbed of controversy.
For Leanza, he gets to follow in the footsteps of Pam Tucker.
That will be no easy task. He may be an excellent interim EMA director, but the public and media simply adored Tucker.
And the manner in which Tucker left her position puts even more pressure on Leanza, whether he deserves it or not.
In her letter of resignation late last month, Tucker was very public on why she was leaving the job she has loved for almost two decades.
“During the last few years, I have endured a hostile work environment by the administrator, who has an on-going deliberate campaign to force me out of my job,” Tucker wrote in her Jan. 31 letter of resignation, referring to County Administrator Scott Johnson. “Time and time again, I have tried to be strong and keep focused on my job since that is my passion and has been for a large part of my life. The latest of many verbal attacks on me is more than I can suffer.”
Tucker basically told Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross that she was “done.”
“As a professional, hard-working employee who truly cares about the citizens of Columbia County, I deserve much better than to be berated repeatedly by the administrator,” Tucker wrote in her letter to Cross. “I have had my job responsibilities slowly stripped away — one by one — because the administrator has been dishonest with the commissioners in regard to my leadership. I don’t know what his ultimate plan was, but I do know that my leadership has greatly benefited our community and the commissioners in countless ways. The administrator’s continuous harsh treatment of me has left me demoralized, frustrated, and dispirited.”
The public has been outraged ever since Tucker turned in her keys and walked away from her position as EMA director on Feb. 3.
Good luck, Leanza. You are going to need it.
As for Wallen over in the fire department, he could be facing some heat, too.
Columbia County Fire Rescue still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding the
devastating June 2, 2015, fire at Marshall Square that killed 91-year-old resident Dorothy Carpenter and displaced more than 80 senior residents.
And, let’s face it: retired Columbia County Fire Chief Doug Cooper managed to end out his career without ever really public addressing what went wrong that night.
But his deposition regarding the fire was very telling.
Lawyers involved in the lawsuit pertaining to the Marshall Square fire have stated that once Columbia County Fire Rescue arrived on the scene of the fire around 3:30 a.m., it was discovered that the sprinklers inside Marshall Square were also manually shut off by Marshall Square’s property manager, Chris Bryde.
However, Bryde testified that Columbia County fire personnel told him to shut off the sprinklers as soon as they arrived on the scene around 3:30 a.m.
While being questioned by Aiken attorney Robin Braithwaite, who is representing the Nebraska-based company Resort Lifestyle Communities that owns Marshall Square, Cooper insisted that no one from his department would shut off the sprinklers.
“We never turn off sprinklers in any building that’s got live smoke in it until we have that completely under control,” Cooper said. “That’s just an unwritten law.”
Braithwaite asked the chief if he ever discussed the sprinkler system with his firefighters following the Marshall Square fire.
“I did,” Cooper said. “I just said, ‘If anybody cut that sprinkler system off, they better own up and let me know.’”
But Cooper said nobody owned up to it.
“Let me ask you this, have you made any kind of an assessment or determination what role the shutting down of that sprinkler system played in the spread of this fire?” Braithwaite asked.
“I think it was detrimental,” Cooper replied.
The fire chief insisted that, while the sprinkler system may not have been able to totally extinguish the fire, it definitely would have helped suppress it.
But Cooper again insisted that his firefighters know better than to turn off the sprinkler system.
“I don’t think any individual fireman would cut a sprinkler off,” he said. “I know my firefighters responded appropriately. I know they did. That thing could have been a lot worse than it was.”
“Let me ask you this, would that be dereliction of duty on the part of any fireman who would tell Mr. Bryde to turn that off?” Braithwaite asked.
“It would probably end their career,” Cooper bluntly said.
The fire chief appeared extremely confident about his firefighters’ actions until Braithwaite announced he was going to play an audio recording of radio communications between the firefighters during the early morning hours of June 2, 2015.
On the recording, a male voice can be heard saying, “All right. Let’s shut off the sprinkler system as soon as we can.”
After the audio file ends, Braithwaite asked Cooper if he was able to hear the recorded conversation.
“Sounded like something… about shutting down the sprinkler system,” Cooper replied.
“And do you recognize the voice on there?” Braithwaite asked.
“Sounded like Danny Kuhlmann,” Cooper said, referring to the operations chief for Columbia County Fire Rescue.
Braithwaite asked Cooper to listen to another audio file that occurred almost one minute later at 3:44 a.m. inside the Marshall Square retirement community.
On the recording, a male voice can be heard saying, “I’ve got Engine 3 on their way. We’re by the sprinkler system control valve.”
Again, Braithwaite asked Cooper if he was able to hear the voice on the recording.
“That was Danny,” Cooper replied.
Braithwaite asked if hearing the recording changed Cooper’s mind about the actions of the fire department.
“It does if he shut that sprinkler system down,” Cooper said. “Like I said, that’s a career-ending move right there.”
And, yet, to this day, Kuhlmann is still on the job and Cooper got to retire and walk away from it all.
Business as usual in Columbia County.