Source: Leadership falsely reported information to better insurance rates
By RON AIKEN
Sometime around 11 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29, 80-year-old True Dent Henderson died as a result of smoke inhalation from a blaze Columbia Fire Department officials suspect was arson.
Henderson previously had reported a suspicious fire a month before at another building in her apartment complex, the Plantation Court Apartments on South Saluda Avenue near Rosewood Avenue.
In December, fire department personnel had responded in time to prevent the fire from spreading.
In January, they did not.
The tragedy was widely reported by local media.
What was not reported was that on Jan. 24, just five days before the fire that took Henderson’s life, Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins had closed Station 9 at 2847 Devine Street — the nearest responding station to the fire — to handle a mold problem months in the making that, Jenkins admitted to reporters at the time, was an “ongoing issue here at this station.”
Records received by Quorum through the Freedom of Information Act show that particular station on Devine Street was a magnet for the type of problems that led to dangerous mold conditions, from a leaky roof and toilets that backed up to sinks that wouldn’t turn off, fans that wouldn’t run and dryers that wouldn’t dry.
From March 2013 to the week of Jan. 30, 2017, Station 9 firefighters had filed a total of 157 separate work orders for repairs, often for the same complaints.
When the fire started that January night in a stairwell at Henderson’s building, there were no trucks at Station 9 to respond. Sources tell Quorum the station’s ladder truck had been moved to Station 1 at 1800 Laurel St. and its fire engine had been relocated to Station 3 just off Bluff Road past I-77.
Instead of having multiple trucks able to respond less than five minutes and just over a mile away, the nearest help for Henderson that night was seven minutes (2.2 miles from Station No. 1) and nine minutes (4.4 miles from Station No. 3) away.
“The delay was absolutely a factor in the response to that fire,” said a whistleblower within the Columbia Fire Department (CFD) who spoke exclusively to Quorum for this story and whose information Quorum vetted through multiple sources inside and outside the department.
“A delay of five or six minutes in a fire can be an eternity. Would she have survived? Of course there’s no way to know that.
“But her chances would have improved. It’s very concerning as a firefighter when you could have been there earlier and the reason you weren’t was because someone didn’t respond to repeated work order requests to fix a mold problem until it got too dangerous for the firefighters themselves. There’s no excuse for that.”
The source said rather than correct all the mold issues at CFD stations after that incident, the problem continues
to affect public safety.
“Station 11 at Belvedere (30 Blume Ct.) had the same situation as Station 9,” the source said. “The basement fills with water every time it rains and they tested positive for mold. That station was out of service for a month or so, maybe longer, and only just returned to service a week or so ago.”
Mold, however, may well be the least of CFD’s concerns. Because as unfortunate as its impact has been, the real problems in the department, the source said, are much, much worse.
From a staggering attrition rate that has caused CFD to lose 305 personnel since 2010 to questionable procurement practices in which a purchase officer ignored an internal testing program and instead spent approximately $60,000 on untested gloves to falsely reporting that specific educational goals were met in order to lower Columbia’s Public Protection Classification, the problems at the fire department are impossible to ignore.
“It’s time people knew what was going on,” the source said. “The public should be concerned. Very concerned.
“It’s not worth losing one life to keep these problems hidden away, but if nothing happens to change the culture here, that’s what’s being risked.”
Experience matters in every profession, and fighting fires is no exception. But experience is precisely what the CFD has been woefully short of as over the past two years 50 firefighters have resigned – more than resigned in the previous four years combined. Even more have been lost through retirement, disability, washing out of recruit school or through termination.
In 2016, the attrition rate was 13.1 percent – four times the department’s targeted attrition rate of 3 percent. To combat the losses, since 2010 the department — which also handles fire protection for Richland County — has spent $7.2 million on 359 new hires only to see a net gain of 54 employees.
“We spent $7 million to gain hardly anybody,” the source said.
Younger recruits require more time and money to train than older firefighters. The CFD estimates that each new hire costs more than $20,000 for entry-level training that takes 18 weeks to complete, and even then they’re not experienced, just qualified. That’s why firefighters with experience who leave disproportionately affect the entire department, which is precisely what the CFD has faced.
From 2010-2016, 155 of the 305 employees lost had six or more years of service, and 78 employees had 21 or more years of service.
“In the past six months alone, we’ve lost four battalion chiefs with about 30 years of experience each,” the source said. “You see so many people leaving early, buying out their retirement to be able to get away.”
What they’re getting away from in massive numbers, the source said, is a dysfunctional leadership team that has shown a willingness to tolerate lazy, sometimes unethical behavior from staff, especially if it achieves results. The source said rather than benefit the community, such practices fail to serve the public and, in fact, put them in more danger than they realize.
“After the shakeup that happened late last year after (a consultant’s) survey came out, we got a new ops chief,” the source said. “One of the first things he did was go through and evaluate our reporting, and he immediately found more than 4,000 missing fire reports from 2016.
“When a 911 call comes in, the computer generates a report, then that report has to be closed out at the end of a shift. Since we’re not paid overtime to fill them out, once we get off, people got lazy filling them out and management didn’t care. These are the kinds of reports where if your car catches on fire, you have to turn it in to make a claim. People just wouldn’t do them. The new chief made everyone go back and re-do each one of those 4,000 reports.
“No one is held accountable for anything. Everyone knows that, so it just creates a poisonous atmosphere that’s already stressful because you’re short-staffed — we’re 60-something positions short, and at least one or two trucks in the city ride with three people instead of four every day, which can cause all kinds of problems in situations where you need every person available.”
While much has been written about CFD’s poor pay affecting attrition rates, the implementation of incentive pay and raises has not put a stop to the exodus.
“If you have pay raises and attrition is still high, it’s about something else,” the source said. ”
It’s one thing when an individual makes a potentially unethical decision, such as a chief with purchasing authority allegedly buying some $60,000 worth of new firefighting gloves that were not part of a rigorous internal test of six different brands to choose the ones best suited for the department. That situation, sources tell Quorum, is the subject of an open internal investigation.
It’s another thing entirely when a decision of questionable ethical judgment is issued by a senior staff member in an effort to circumvent federal reporting criteria to improve the department’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating, but that is exactly what the source alleged happened.
“More than anything else, those ratings directly affect what people pay in homeowner’s premiums for fire insurance,” the source said. “They are very, very important to management.
“One of the areas they look at is education, and there’s a requirement that you have to do a certain number of hours at your own training ground. An email went out, and they made a lot of people lie on the numbers for training hours and equipment, for facility use hours. A lot of the department’s companies did not meet that. People who did not meet the standard, they made up hours.”
Response times also were inaccurate, the source said.
“You have 4,000 missing reports for a year, how can you know the real response times when people are filling them out months later?,” the source said. “And when you’re riding with up to three or four short trucks (trucks with fewer than four people) any given day, those trucks take longer and if something happens where someone has to leave the truck to drive an ambulance if there’s a cardiac arrest, that truck then goes out of service.
“None of those things are accurately measured. The whole motivation is to make the numbers look good to get the best rating possible, not report your situation accurately, and that comes right from the top.”
Speaking to The State newspaper in November, Jenkins did not hesitate to boast about CFD’s ranking.
“CFD is not in disarray,” Jenkins said. “We are a strong department. Public safety is our first priority, which has been demonstrated by the Class 1 ISO rating the city of Columbia just received. Less than 1 percent of the fire departments across the country have a Class 1.”
“Everything about our attrition rate says this is a horrible place to work,” the source said. “Not just hours or pay. Those things are part of the job and firefighters understand that and take pride in working hard through anything.
“The firefighters here, they deal with terrible equipment and run-down stations and being short-staffed and they work their tails off.
“But unfortunately this command staff has degraded the department to where it is affecting the citizens. False information is misleading the public about responsiveness and training and bad decisions have put lives at risk.”
Lives like that of True Dent Henderson.
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.
CFD Council Presentation 2017(4-16-2017)