Ga. fire union expresses concerns about firefighter safety

By Joszef Papp
The Augusta Chronicle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Augusta Fire Department has been sent at least three letters of complaint from the local firefighters association stating concerns about safety.

The letters by the Augusta Professional Firefighters Association Local 3357 have been sent since Sept. 21. An additional letter was sent by the International Association of Fire Fighters complaining about the way the city of Augusta has attempted to suppress the organization's voice.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, Local 3357 President Charlie Coleman cites an instance in which a firefighter suffered a health-related injury during a training session Aug. 13. Coleman claims that conditions during the training posed an extreme threat for injury based on the heat stress index.

In the letter, Coleman said the temperature measured at the time of injury was 93 degrees. The firefighter was assessed and received treatment before returning for the rest of his shift without further evaluation, according to eyewitnesses. Coleman said no patient care report was completed, and he requested a full investigation.

James responded Oct. 1, saying the allegations are under review and a response will be provided.

One of the concerns Coleman has is the use of IVs for firefighters who have been injured or dehydrated in the field or during training. In the past, a firefighter receiving treatment, such as an IV, was taken to the hospital, checked out and sent home with pay for the rest of their shift.

“All of the sudden, a few months ago, we stopped that practice,” Coleman said. “We just started sticking IVs into firefighters, whether it would be at the training facility, on mandated training in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the heat.”

Coleman said James did later re-implement a policy that anyone getting an IV would be sent to the hospital and checked out. However, that process should have never stopped, especially since it can put people in danger, he said.

“When you have a firefighter that has to receive an IV after a training event and you leave him on duty for the rest of his shift, you are not only putting that firefighter in danger, if he has to go to a structure fire, you also put that crew in danger,” Coleman said. “You are also putting the public that we serve in danger.”

In an Oct. 16 letter sent to James and a similar one to Augusta Regional Airport Fire Department Chief Michael Beal, Coleman expressed his concern about the lack of cooperation between the city and airport fire departments. It cited incidents in the vicinity of the airport in which the Augusta Fire Department didn't contact the airport's department.

Coleman said James and the deputy chief don't get along with some people who work at the airport's fire department, even though they all work for the city. Coleman believes that the lack of a good working relationship puts the public in danger.

“We have members in our association that actually work for the (airport fire department) and we've always felt like we were all one group here to help the public,” Coleman said. “Some of the animosity between the chief and the airport personnel … has gone too far.”

In a letter to Coleman, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson expressed disappointment by her, the mayor and Commissioner Dennis Williams that the letters sent to James and the commission did not follow a proper chain of command. Jackson asked Coleman to follow the proper chain of command.

Coleman took that letter as a threat and said it's not the first time he or previous presidents have received letters from the city. Coleman said that while he is off duty, he has no chain of command to follow with the fire department when he is representing the organization. He plans to continue working to address the association's concerns.

“My No. 1 goal is the safety of the firefighters and the citizens that we serve,” Coleman said. “Personally, if I make some politicians or the mayor mad by bringing up concerns that are safety issues to the public or to the firefighters, I'm going to address them before someone gets hurt or killed.”

IAF General President Harold Schaitberger sent a letter to Jackson on Oct. 30, saying “certain city officials” have been trying to intimidate Local 3357 members and discourage people, particularly those from the airport's fire department, from joining the union.

He also claimed Beal had been threatened with reprisal for supporting Local 3357 and that the city was taking steps to silence its members. Schaitberger ended the letter stating that he hopes the situation can be resolved quickly and without legal action. The letter was also sent to Mayor Hardie Davis, commissioners, James, Beal and others.

Coleman met with James on Oct. 19 to address some of the association's concerns but said the meeting didn't go well. He feels that nothing is going to change as long as the current administration stays in place.

Requests for comment from Jackson and James were not returned Friday.

Copyright 2018 The Augusta Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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