This past week was a turbulent time for the Ludowici/Long County Fire Department with the suspension of the acting chief, a partial walkout of firefighters and allegations that a commissioner illegally operated a fire truck.
On Monday, Acting Fire Chief Shawn Smith was suspended by the Long County Board of Commissioners on accusations that he was insubordinate to Commissioners Chairman Dwight Gordon.
Early that afternoon, Smith contacted Gordon and stated that Commissioner Gerald Blocker had driven a fire truck to two emergency calls even though he was not properly licensed to drive a fire truck and is not an active member of the fire department.
Smith said Blocker violated fire-department policies and procedures, as well as the law, by his actions. He said that anyone else who had committed these acts would have been arrested and charged.
After a heated conversation, Gordon suspended Smith for seven days, pending the approval of the other members of the Board. After the news of Smith’s suspension got back to the fire department, the two firefighters who were on duty walked off the job, leaving only volunteers to respond to emergency calls.
Shortly after this occurred, Assistant Chief Randy Combs posted a message on the fire department’s Facebook page advising residents that the county’s fire coverage could be in jeopardy. Later that night, a meeting was called by Combs at the fire department in Ludowici to determine what, if any, action fire-department members would take.
Fourteen firefighters attended the meeting, with most expressing a dissatisfaction with the current group of county commissioners. Combs said that in his 24 years as a member of the department, the morale had never been lower, and he feels that these commissioners do not support of the fire department.
“We’re trying to move forward,” Combs said. “Some don’t want that; they want a social club like we used to have.”
Firefighter Alan Rhoden said, “I haven’t seen much support at all from them. … We are being held back for personal reasons by a commissioner.”
Smith said, “This group of commissioners has no plan for the fire department or any department in this county.”
He also told the group that Blocker was being given preferential treatment by his fellow commissioners and that this wasn’t fair to the other fire-department members. He said two current firefighters had been removed from the department for not having the appropriate license to drive the fire trucks, and they were only allowed back on the department after obtaining one. Smith added that Blocker did not know how to properly operate the truck, and that it was out of service for several weeks after he drove it.
Several paid firefighters said they would not report for their assigned shifts, but that they would still volunteer to cover emergency calls.
Several others said they supported Smith and the department’s goals, but for financial reasons, they had to work their shifts.
Combs said he felt it was best for the community if the firefighters continued to at least serve as volunteers so the community would continue to have fire protection. He said that hopefully, when the next county election takes place, there would be different people on the Board of Commissioners who would better support the fire department.
Contacted Wednesday about the allegations against Blocker, Long County Sheriff Craig Nobles said the fire department is under the direction of the Board of Commissioners. Nobles said Gordon told him that Blocker was still a member on the department, so there was no theft of the vehicle. He said Blocker did not break any laws in driving the vehicle, because according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulation 383.3, firefighters are exempt from the proper license to drive a fire truck as long as they were responding to an emergency call.
He also said that it was his job to enforce the law, not the fire department’s procedures.
“If law enforcement didn’t have this exception, half the fire departments in the state would have to fold because they wouldn’t have any way to get their fire trucks to their calls,” Nobles said.
Later that day, Gordon said Combs should not have posted the message on the fire department’s Facebook page that the county was in jeopardy of losing its fire protection. Gordon said the page is not authorized by the county and that firefighters were available continually. He said the message created an unnecessary scare among county residents.Gordon did verify that some of the shift firefighters had not shown up for work, but he said these shifts were being covered by other firefighters. He said a portion of Combs’ post also offended many people in the military, and that his comments were not a reflection of how Long County feels about those who serve.
“We consider all of those who serve in the military as our brothers and sisters,” Gordon said. “We support them 100 percent, and we appreciate the sacrifices that they make for us. Also, we won’t tolerate any county employee disrespecting them.”
Gordon said that earlier Wednesday that Combs had submitted his resignation from the fire department, but that the resignation had not been accepted. Gordon said he was going to urge the other commissioners to not accept it, but to terminate Combs instead. He also confirmed that Smith had been suspended for insubordination, and that actions were being reviewed. Gordon said the department is in the process of searching for a new full-time fire chief to replace former Chief Richard Truman, who is currently disabled.
Gordon said he regretted hearing that several fire-department members feel that he and the other commissioners do not support them. He said this isn’t true and that they actually are looking into the possibility of raising their pay.
“I and the other commissioners support our fire department wholeheartedly,” he said. “We appreciate what they do, and I believe they are one of the better fire departments in this area.”
Gordon said that in December, the commissioners did approve the fire department’s current policies and procedures and that there is a section in that document forbidding an elected official in Long County from being a member of the department. But he said that because Blocker was a member prior to this change, he was grandfathered in and was eligible to remain on the fire department.
According to minutes from Long County Commissioner’s Dec. 9 meeting, the policy and procedures for the fire department were approved by a 3-2 vote, with Gordon and Blocker voting no, and Robert Long, Willie Thompson, and Clifton DeLoach voting yes.
In the minutes for that meeting and in the Dec. 12 edition of the Coastal Courier, there was no mention of a grandfather clause to allow current members of the fire department an exemption to remain on the department.
Also, according to the minutes from a specially called meeting one week later on Dec. 19 between the commissioners, the fire department, the Long County Protective Services Auxiliary, and the county Emergency Response Team, Blocker identified himself as a member of the latter two organizations but not of the fire department.
A reporter went to the fire department Wednesday to view the current policies-and-procedures document in an effort to verify whether the grandfather clause exists, but according to firefighters on duty, it was locked up and they did not have access to it. Attempts to reach Blocker by phone and text Wednesday were unsuccessful.