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I-TEAM | Investigating broken policies at Augusta Fire Department

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 7:29 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An I-Team investigation into broken policies at the Augusta Fire Department has city leaders talking.

”When it comes to policy and procedures there is a lot to consider,” said Fire Chief Antonio Burden.

We’re hearing from the city’s fire chief for the first time three months after our I-Team first started asking questions about how Nichoel Gaither died. She was the Augusta woman heard on a 911 recording pleading for help because she couldn’t breathe.

Firefighters were standing right outside her door but would not go in without a sheriff’s deputy, per their policy. And as I-Team’s Liz Owens reports, what’s critical here is she gave permission to 911 for someone to bust down her door.

Every week since we shared Nichoel’s story with you, we have asked for an update on that policy. The fire department has stopped responding, but today did give a brief update to commissioners on the public safety committee.

On Tuesday, Burden told commissioners he’s reviewing his department’s policies.

“Creating policy can be a rather laborious process and not taking lightly so we are in the beginning stages of that,” he said. “There we change immediately and some that will take a little bit more time.”

Gaither did not have time.

911 tape: “Please help (I live alone. I can’t make it to the door. They may have to bust down the door, OK.)”

Two days after our story aired in September, Burden’s public information officer sent this email to the city administrator’s office:

“I spoke with Chief Burden. He’s meeting with Commissioner Clark tomorrow. Hopefully, this doesn’t hit the public forum and allow the rest of the media to jump in on it.”

We told the Fire Department we will be checking in every week to find out if the policy that cost Nichoel her life will be changed.

Burden tells the city administrator News 12 was asking questions in an email:

“Wanted to bring the following to your attention. ... As stated in the previous response this information will be requested weekly.”

The chief sends the administrator a second email the same day:

“We have received several media requests regarding the crest drive call for service, and the policy/procedures in place...which some media outlets have called into question.”

The administrator later replies:

“Since many of these policies have not been updated in quite some time, and the high level of scrutiny around emergency services, I would like to see some sort of public update on the process to the commission once you’ve had an opportunity to move the effort forward.”

Burden followed through with the administrator’s request for a public update Tuesday:

“When it comes to policy and procedures I feel its really important to take a meticulous more proactive approach to policies and procedures as opposed to being reactionary,” said Burden.

“I know we all have concerns about certain policies being effective immediately,” said Commissioner John Clarke. “Get these new policies implemented as quickly as we can. ... And I am sure you can do that with the help of the administrator and the legal department.”

Another email the I-Team obtained shows the chief has drafted changes to the forced entry policy. Firefighters would not be required to wait on a deputy before going into a home to help someone. The draft of the policy is not yet signed.

A consultant paid with your tax dollars told commissioners to look into the department’s policies and procedures last November. That was eight months before Chief Burden was hired. The chief says he’s consulting with other fire chiefs in other cities, the HR department, and the law department to get this right.

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