5 Atlanta Lieutenants to Keep Titles During Appeal

City attorney argues there's no evidence of cheating
Marcus K. Garner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Thursday, March 15, 2012

Atlanta--A state appeals court Wednesday halted a judge's order to demote five Atlanta firefighters linked to a tainted promotion exam.

Three other firefighters led a class-action lawsuit contending the city did nothing to address the cheating allegation, and a jury agreed with them.

But the city on Tuesday appealed the decision of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee that the five firefighters who scored 90 or higher--- an unprecedented mark --- on the 2010 promotion written exam lose their provisional lieutenant status as of today, and be replaced by seven candidates who scored between 60 and 62 on the test.

"There has been no evidence that there had been any cheating," Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson contended Wednesday evening in a phone interview.

Firefighters Roderick Armstrong, Victor Bennett and Jason Johnson filed the suit last year, saying the city didn't investigate allegations that an undisclosed number of Atlanta Fire Rescue employees cheated or were illegally helped on the April 2010 exam.

While the jury didn't identify any cheaters, Lee, in her decision last week, alluded that the top scorers should be scrutinized.

"If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the motions hearing to determine how much the city had to pay in legal fees.

Lee ruled that about 110 employees, including the five top performers, would be eligible to retest, and that the test should be administered by an independent testing agency.

But city officials argued that if the demotions went through as scheduled, it would constitute a direct attack on those five firefighters.

"Five firefighters will lose their jobs," the appellate decision read, citing the city's contention.

Lee Parks, who represents the three plaintiffs and the 160 other Atlanta Fire employees in the class action, could not be reached Wednesday evening for comment.

Richardson added to his concerns for the five firefighters who would be affected by Lee's injunction.

"Ordering these firefighters to retake a test denies them due process and full protection," he said. "They were never sued. The lawsuit was against the city."

While the appeal asks a higher court to explore the verdict rendered last month, Richardson said it also helps to maintain the status quo.

"What this does is allow all the firefighters to stay in their current positions while we argue the merits of the appeal," he said.
 

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Copyright 2011 Lexus Nexus. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Georgia Woman Rescued from Trash Cute

5 Atlanta Lieutenants Stripped of Promotions; Independent Retests Ordered

City will also have to pay $320,000 to firefighters who brought the suit
Marcus K. Garner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Thursday, March 8, 2012

Atlanta - The City of Atlanta will have to pay three of its firefighters $320,000 for legal fees from a class action lawsuit claiming city officials did nothing to address allegations of cheating on a fire department promotion test, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee also ruled that five Atlanta firefighters who scored higher than a 90 on the city's written test for lieutenant will be stripped of their provisional promotions and corresponding pay until an independent retest can be given.

The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged the city didn't fully investigate cheating allegations raised against an undisclosed number of firefighters who took the April 2010 exam.

Last month, a jury ruled in favor of three firefighters who claimed, on behalf of 160 other fire employees who took the test, that two assistant chiefs provided answers to several firefighters before the exam.

Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson objected to the jury verdict and the judge's decision. He said the city intends to appeal the ruling.

"There's been no proof . . . no direct evidence of cheating," Richardson said.

The jury didn't indicate which individuals cheated, but Lee on Wednesday pointed at the top scorers when she made her decision to invalidate their promotions.

"If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the hearing.

In addition to stripping the titles, Lee ruled that about 110 employees who scored 60 or more on the exam will be eligible to retest and that the exam will be administered by an independent testing agency.

It remained unclear if an independent testing agency will become an ongoing requirement. All firefighters who retake and pass the test and are promoted will be paid retroactively to the date of the first test.

About 80 firefighters were promoted from the first exam.

Lee Parks, the attorney for the firefighters who brought the lawsuit, echoed demands of the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters that the city conduct an investigation of who cheated and who enabled the cheating.

Parks suggested that criminal charges be sought.

"Right now, Atlanta Public School teachers are sitting in the district attorney's office because they did what these fire department members did," he said. "This is not an administrative issue. We're talking about criminal activity."

Richardson said the city wouldn't pursue an internal investigation until the lawsuit is closed.

Lee will finalize her judgment, including details for the company to conduct the retest and the cost, on Friday. Richardson said he will ask at that time that she change her decision to reverse the promotions.
 

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DeKalb County Firefighters Question Quality of SCBA after Malfunctions, Failures

Confidence from firefighters lacking, Drager blames lack of proper maintenance.
APRIL HUNT, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Friday, February 24, 2012

After 25 'near misses,' firefighters demand new air packs. Executive defends company's products.

The company that makes the air packs that DeKalb County firefighters say have malfunctioned from Day 1 is expected to offer a solution to the problem by today.

But even if Drager Safety offers 330 new devices to replace the entire fleet in use for free, fire Chief Edward O'Brien said the price is too high.

"The confidence level is just not there," O'Brien said. "Given the three-year track record we've had, it is just not a good fit for us."

Tim Martin, Drager's vice president of sales, met with O'Brien this week to go over concerns about the packs, which provide compressed air for firefighters to breathe as they battle blazes.

Martin said the Pittsburgh company stood by its product, with more than 1 million in use worldwide. He blamed lack of proper maintenance for the 22 "near misses" with malfunctioning and failing packs in the field during the first 18 months after they came online in DeKalb in 2009.

Specifically, he said he and his team found O-rings without lubrication as well as dirt and other particles clogging important pieces of the gear.

"We cannot overstate the importance of knowing how to maintain this equipment," Martin said. "We are not confident the maintenance program is robust enough in DeKalb."

O'Brien countered that basic maintenance is always done after a fire. But in the busy department --- which handled 371 structure fires last year --- there often isn't time for significant work on equipment.

"Firefighting is a dirty, nasty job, and we can't take our packs out of service after every fire," he said. "We have to be able to wash it off and go, because sometimes we're heading right out to another fire."

Martin would not comment on what potential solutions the firm would offer to get the air packs back in condition. Drager already has trained nearly four dozen DeKalb County firefighters how to properly care for the gear, he said.

County leaders may want far more than additional training or support. Calls for legal action against Drager increased this week, especially after officials learned three more packs had problems last weekend. In the most severe case, a broken mouthpiece on one pack forced a firefighter inside a burning home to rush outside for air.

"We are looking into all of our options, including those in the legal arena," county spokesman Burke Brennan said.

"If we have to completely replace this equipment, I'm in support of going after them for our expenditures," Commissioner Elaine Boyer said. "It's not just money spent. It's about the safety of our firefighters."

The commission is expected to approve taking $2 million out of the Fire Department's rainy day fund when it votes on the 2012 budget Tuesday. That would cover costs to buy all new packs, which is what O'Brien has requested.

He wants to look at several other manufacturers, not Drager. The new gear would not be in use until summer because of purchasing rules.

Firefighters welcome the possibility of new air packs. Many have told Nathan Leota, president of the DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local No. 1492, they are nervous about the gear. They want to be able to rush to calls focused on the fires, not whether their equipment might have problems, he said.

"This is the most important piece of equipment for a firefighter, and we take very good care of it because it protects us," Leota said. "To keep using them, it's not a gamble I'm willing to take with our members."

Martin said he didn't know until this week that DeKalb was considering replacing its air packs or that the issue had become contentious. He and O'Brien agreed they had a productive meeting this week to lay out concerns and possible solutions.

He disagreed, though, that the packs are to blame and said it "doesn't sit well" to hear firefighters are uneasy with Drager products.

"We obviously have a common goal, and that is to keep firefighters in DeKalb County safe," Martin said. "We are working with DeKalb and will continue working with them for as long as they have the equipment to make sure their people are safe."

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Atlanta Man Suffers Third-Degree Burns Helping 5 Children Escape from House Fire

None of the children was injured in the fire
Joel Anderson, Mike Morris / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Friday, February 17, 2012

Atlanta - An Atlanta man was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns after escaping an early Thursday morning apartment fire that destroyed the home of his family of seven.

Lance Ferrell was being treated for third-degree burns to his legs and one of his hands at Grady Memorial Hospital, according to girlfriend Chantale Johnson.

"They say it's going to take a while for him to recover," Johnson said.

The blaze broke out before 2:30 a.m. at the Edgewood Court apartments on Hardee Street in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood.

Johnson said she was preparing for bed when she smelled smoke. She turned on the lights and noticed smoke already had filled the small home.

Ferrell woke the five children from their slumber, she said, rounded them up and quickly ushered them outside. He handed his month-old son to a neighbor who lived in a unit below theirs.

Johnson said she remained inside, using some old blankets to try to put out the fire. Ferrell returned and tried to douse the blaze with water, but the flames grew higher, she said.

Johnson escaped uninjured, and none of the children was hurt. They are staying with a friend at the apartment complex. The family lost clothes, furniture and food. But, as neighbor Evelyn Hall said, they got out with each other.

"I was scared for them," she said. "But they're going to be OK."

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Wind-Driven Fire Damages Georgia Auto Dealership

Over a dozen cars damaged as flames swpet the sales lot.
U.S. Auto Sales at 306 Atlanta Road in Cumming up in flames. (Liz Kennedy/CummingPatch.com photo)
Published Monday, February 13, 2012

CUMMING, Ga. (CummingPatch.com) - A raging fire destroyed U.S. Auto Sales on Atlanta Road (Highway 9) in Cumming Sunday afternoon, producing a cloud of black smoke that could be seen across Georgia 400 between exits 14 and 15.

No one was injured in the fire, according to Battalion Chief Jimmy Hildebrand of the Forsyth County Fire Department. It is unknown when the fire was first reported, but Cumming Patch was on the scene shortly after 1 p.m. At that time flames were consuming the structure and when firefighters had the blaze under control, at least 14 vehicles were destroyed.

Hildebrand told Cumming Patch the owner of the used car dealership has been notified, but the cause of the fire is unknown and currently under investigation.

Firefighters from Gwinnett, Alpharetta and Cherokee were on the scene working the blaze. Members of Forsyth County Fire were attending the funeral of Mark Aycock, 42, a veteran of the FCFD who died last week after losing his battle with cancer.

According to Capt. Jason Shivers of the FCFD, the county is being covered by neighboring fire departments as a courtesy protocol when one department attends the funeral of a fallen firefighter as in the case of Forsyth County Fire on Sunday.

"All of our stations are being covered by neighboring departments," said Shivers. "Before we pulled any of our units out of service we had other departments in place."

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Wind-Driven Fire Damages Cars at Georgia Dealership “Gone with the Wind” Memorabilia in Georgia Warehouse Fire

Firefighters Preparing for Busy Georgia Wildfire Season

Warm, dry weather could bring a repeat of last year's destructive fires
Published Monday, February 6, 2012

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — With forecasters predicting an early spring in southeast Georgia, forestry officials are gearing up for what could be an early start to a fire season they fear could be a repeat of 2011.

Three large fires torched nearly 340,000 acres in and near the Okefenokee Swamp last year.

Now, forecasters are predicting average rainfall for February, said Jason Gillis, interim district manager at the Georgia Forestry Commission's Satilla District office. But that won't be enough to cut into the drought that has left the woods and swamps dry, he said.

The conditions mean wildfires could be popping up in a few weeks, Gillis told The Florida Times-Union (http://bit.ly/zzmCA8 ).

Also, the swamp water levels that alarmed officials in February 2011 are slightly lower now, said Arthur Webster, supervisory ranger at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of the plants out in the swamp are starting to green up and bloom, and those plants will begin sapping water from the swamp, he said.

The Okefenokee doesn't have enough fuel left to be as dangerous as in 2011, authorities say.

However, the saw palmettos, which are volatile even when green, and grasses that were burned to the ground have come back strong and the swamp is littered in places with trees that were killed by the Honey Prairie, Webster said.

Those can combine to carry a fire if the wind is right, so Webster won't say a fire wouldn't cross some of the same ground as last year.

There are also some areas that didn't burn at all, and that has some people nervous. Among them is Martin Bell, manager of Okefenokee Swamp Park south of Waycross.

"What didn't burn is band right around us," he said.

It would take only a lightning strike to ignite it and the park's wildlife attractions and buildings would be in danger as they were in 2011.
 

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Nearly 39,000 Pounds of Junk Mail Burns Alongside Georgia Highway

38,616 pounds of advertising mail was traveling on U.S. Highway 1.
Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WAYCROSS, Ga. (AP) — Authorities say they've determined that nearly 39,000 pounds of mail bound for Florida burned on the side of a Georgia highway.

Postal Service spokesman Stephen Seewoester tells the Florida Times-Union (http://bit.ly/xVOLtX) that all 38,616 pounds was advertising mail, also known as junk mail.

Waycross Postmaster Richard Ferrell determined there was no first-class mail among the cargo of the burned-out semitrailer.

Authorities say 38-year-old trucker Jimmy Lewis Dobson of Warner Robins saw flames coming from around the rear wheels of his semitrailer on U.S. Highway 1 north of Waycross on Saturday night. He got out of the truck and firefighters extinguished the blaze, but the mail had already burned.

The burned mail originated in the Georgia town of Eastman.

___

Information from: The Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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