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12 volunteer fire support staff resign from Fire Station No. 8
Feud over water tank was catalyst, Dawson officials say
Emergency Services

Originally updated: Dec. 7, 2018, 5:06 p.m.

The future of Fire Station No. 8 on Burnt Mountain is uncertain after 12 volunteer support firefighters turned in their resignation last week after refusing to attend a Dawson County training session, throwing a wrench in a so far successful intergovernmental agreement between Pickens and Dawson counties.

The intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, was signed in December 2008 and established that Pickens County would build the station on Monument Road while Dawson County would provide equipment and assume operation of the station, including training the volunteers.

Dawson County Emergency Services Chief Danny Thompson held a mandatory training session for the station on Dec. 4, but reported only one of the 13 support staff assigned to the station attended.

Lt. John Tarantini, the head of the volunteers on Burnt Mountain, wrote in an email to Thompson the morning of Dec. 4 that the volunteers would instead be attending a Pickens County training class in a couple of weeks.

Thompson and Dawson County Manager David Headley took the volunteers’ refusal to attend the Dawson County session as a violation of the IGA, and Headley responded in an email that “ignoring the direction...provided by Chief Thompson is not in keeping with the official agreement between Dawson County and Pickens County.”

According to Thompson, Tarantini refused to sign a letter of reprimand on Dec. 6 for insubordination and failure to follow a direct order, an action that would demote him to the role of support staff member effective immediately. During their Dec. 6 conversation, Tarantini presented a letter of resignation signed by 11 of the other members from Station 8.

The one volunteer who attended the Dec. 4 training did not sign the letter.

Attempts to reach Tarantini prior to press time were unsuccessful.

Dawson County released a statement Dec. 10 that Dawson County Emergency Services continues to provide fire and medical coverage to the Wildcat Community despite the uncertainty.

“In no way do the recent resignations of Station 8 volunteer support personnel members affect the ISO rating for this community, nor does it decrease the level of service provided,” the statement reads. “Dawson County Emergency Services continues to work closely with Pickens County, and both departments demonstrated this commitment over the weekend during the winter weather event.”

Headley said Friday morning that Pickens County has not communicated to Dawson County officials yet on if they wish to withdraw from the IGA. The agreement is automatically renewed each year unless 180 days of written notice is provided by either party.

“Whether Pickens wants to go ahead and take the station over, staff it, it's up to them, but until then the only thing we have to go by is the IGA,” Headley said.

Pickens County Commission Chairman Rob Jones said Monday that he had not spoken with Dawson County officials and had no plans to disrupt the IGA.

He also stated that any implication that he directed the volunteers not to attend training in Dawson County is a lie and that the volunteers are welcome to train in whatever county they wish, as everyone goes by the same reference book from the state of Georgia.

“They are not paid, they are volunteers,” he said. “They are a highly intelligent group of people and if they want to train in Pickens, that’s their discretion. If they want to train in Dawson, that’s their discretion….it’s not a problem if one day they go to Pickens, one day they go to Dawson County.”

Jones intimated that the IGA should be a flexible document, and said that Pickens County trained a lot of Dawson County firefighters and volunteers in the past and that the current fire truck at the station was not paid for just out of Dawson County funds, though the IGA states Dawson County “shall provide the fire apparatus.”

“I know policies change and faces change,” he said. “We’ve worked together since 2008 and I don’t know what the issue is maybe other than people feel they got their toes stepped on.”

The decision for the staff not to attend Dawson County training comes on the heels of a dispute about the role of the volunteers at Station 8, a feud that escalated last month after a home on Burnt Mountain Road in the Wildcat Community was destroyed by fire and Station 8, the closest station, was not called out to assist.

The Wildcat Community was organized in 2006 with the goal of establishing emergency services for the more than 700 homes in the Burnt Mountain area.  The group raised funds to establish Station 8 and purchase a new fire engine.

Members of the community were concerned with the long response time, the fact that Station 8 was not called out and the transfer of 911 calls between Dawson and Pickens counties.

Headley called a town hall meeting to address the concerns of residents in the Wildcat Community, and the meeting ultimately took place Nov. 17 at Station 8. In attendance from Dawson County were Headley and Thompson, as well as District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett, Sheriff Jeff Johnson and E-911 Director Aleisha Rucker-Wright.

Clayton Preble, president of the Wildcat Community, presided over the meeting, with many other homeowners in attendance. Representing Pickens County were Jones and EMS Director Sloan Elrod. Tarantini was the spokesman for Station 8. 

Thompson and Rucker-Wright explained to the gathered crowd that due to limitations and an oversight in the county’s aging computer aided dispatch system, Station 8 was not among the three stations dispatched after the homeowner called 911, even though it was the closest station to the home.

Thompson also explained that even had the station responded, due to their status as support staff, they would only have been able to lay hose and prep for firefighters to arrive and could not have saved the house.
“As unfortunate as it may be, the outcome would have been the same, even if Station 8 was dispatched, because those personnel are not certified to participate in suppression activities,” Thompson said Dec. 5.

In a video of the meeting published on YouTube, residents seemed surprised that support staff are not allowed to actively fight fire.

“For years they have, for whatever reason, whether Dawson County allowed it, or whether they took it upon themselves, but they were engaging in firefighting activity,” Headley said Friday. “So when we found that out, we said no more, that we will conduct a training class, we will get you certified, and comply with what the state code allows us to do.”

Thompson said he became aware that the volunteers had been fighting fire over the summer after a car fire on Monument Road, where some of the same Dawson County volunteers responded wearing street clothes to put the flames out. A complaint from other personnel about policy violations sparked a discussion about the role of the volunteers up at Station 8, and Thompson facilitated training and gear for as many of the volunteers who wanted to train to become certified to fight live fire.

Emails as early as September of this year show Thompson working to get fingerprints and clothing sizes for seven volunteers from Station 8 who wanted to be trained, and a date for the first class was set in late November.

After the town hall meeting at Station 8, the training was delayed a week, until Tarantini made it clear the volunteers would be attending a Pickens training course.

In a September email Tarantini had asked Thompson if the volunteers could continue to fight fires as they had been with water from the outside, something he apparently asked again when meeting with Thompson on Dec. 6.

Thompson wrote in a Dec. 6 email that he agreed in part to the proposal, and would allow those that had signed up for the training and had been issued gear to flow water from outside the hot zone.

“At the end of the day he didn’t want to give up his Lieutenant bars,” Thompson wrote.

Some have suggested that part of the discord lies in a water tank that Dawson County promised to deliver to the station but have not. At the Nov. 17 meeting, after discussion over the fire and the role of the volunteers dissipated, the conversation turned to the water tank, though Thompson said that the water tank currently up at the station was not depleted during the November house fire.

The current 45,000 gallon water tank located at Station 8 was previously the top part of a water tank located on Elliott Family Parkway in Dawson County. Dawson County spent more than $22,000 to move that tank up to the Burnt Mountain station when the station was first built.

Headley explained Friday that a rough estimate of $10,000 to move the second half of the tank up to the station was provided by former Emergency Services Chief Lanier Swafford, but when he and Thompson began looking into the project in May, they received estimates more in the range of $50-60,000.

The county put the project out to bid but received no bids and after exploring other options, none of which panned out, the BOC voted in September to give the tank to Pickens County for them to move.

Pickens had in February spent $20,000 pouring a concrete slab for the tank to rest on, and according to Preble, had been reimbursed $10,000 for the expense.

When asked if he was disappointed about the tank, Jones said he wasn’t but that he wished Dawson County had communicated they wouldn't be providing the tank.

“With the previous administration we still worked on a handshake and a person’s word,” he said. “I had confidence their word would be their bond or I wouldn't have poured the slab. I feel like we’re still responsible for the individuals no matter what community they’re a part of.”

Headley said Friday he thought that the discussion about the fire and Station 8 not responding was being used as leverage in the water tank issue.

“I think it was an avenue that they chose to shame Dawson County into setting this up as a project, setting a budget aside, and getting that water tank up there,” Headley said. “I think it's unfortunate and I’m actually just stunned that we’re in this position that we’re at.”

Thompson said he values the need for water suppression in both counties and that he will continue to make the citizens on Burnt Mountain as much a priority as citizens everywhere else. 

“I’m committed to those citizens in that community,” Thompson said Monday. “Whatever I can do within budgetary constraints, I will do it.”