In this photo from Jan. 25, a firefighter is shown holding a glass of diesel fuel in a home purposely set on fire.
Photo credit: Courtesy of The High Springs Herald/Jennifer Harnish
HIGH SPRNGS -- High Springs Fire Chief Terry Jewell has been put on administrative leave with pay by City Manager Jim Drumm while the city holds an investigation into a training burn that was conducted by the fire department in January.
The State Fire Marshal Bureau of Fire Standards and Training sent a letter to Jewell, stating the fire department violated four Florida Statutes and eight points in the Florida Administrative Code during the training burn.
The alleged violations are related to safety issues leading up to and during the burn and lack of proper training. One accusation is specifically directed at Jewell, accusing him of failing to maintain documentation.
Another allegation in the report states that several statements made to investigators were "less than accurate."
Violations in the April 3 letter include: Not all personnel participating in the drill had adequate training or preparation; flammable liquids were utilized; and, proper preparations for the safety of the personnel participating were not made.
Photographs published in The Herald brought the alleged violations to the attention of the State Fire Marshal, said Nina Banister, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Financial Services.
The photographs, one of which showed a firefighter holding a container of flammable liquid inside the home on fire at the practice burn, were printed in a routine story covering the controlled house burn that is commonly used to train firefighters.
While the photos started the investigation by the state, Banister said there were also numerous reviews and interviews with fire personnel in High Springs concerning the fire drill.
Due to the serious safety allegations from the state, Drumm decided the city should conduct an investigation as well. The city's investigation, being conducted by Capt. Arvey Bass, Internal Affairs Investigator with the High Springs Police Department, will give the city a better understanding of what the violations entailed and if the violations were isolated incidents or ongoing practices, Drumm said.
Inconsistencies in the state's investigation, including stating the training burn happened on a date other than when it did, was also part of the reason the city decided to conduct an investigation, Drumm said.
Jewell was put on administrative leave starting April 12 so that the city could conduct the investigation without the supervisor on active duty, possibly hindering the ability of employees to speak openly, Drumm said.
In addition to the safety violations, the accusations of false statements during the investigation and accusation of failing to maintain documentation are serious matters, said Dave Casey, Chief of Fire Standards and Training for the State Fire Marshal.
Casey said that the alleged deception is a concern to the state.
"We know that some of the things said to us were not true," Casey said.
The alleged deception also is a big concern to Drumm, he said.
"As fire chief, he is a city official," Drumm said. "You want someone who will be honest and truthful in that position."
The fire department is prohibited from conducting any more live fire training until certification has been obtained by a sufficient number of personnel in the department. In addition, the department must correct the listed violations and keep accurate records in accordance with the statutes and rules of the State Fire Marshal, the letter from the Fire Marshall's Office to Jewell states.
Fines of up to $50,000 can be imposed for failure to correct the violations.
Jewell will be on paid leave until the investigation is finished. Drumm said he could not give a date for when the investigation will be finished.
Casey hopes the alleged problems at the fire station can be corrected because the responsibility to protect firefighters must come first.
"It was an incredibly dangerous way that things were done," he said. "We want to resolve that."
The state sends out notices of violations about 12 times a year, Casey said.
The violations in the steps leading up to and during the drill in High Springs were unsafe and put the firefighters at risk, Casey said.
"The situation is not all that different from investigations where we have had firefighters who died," he said.
Courtesy The High Springs Herald