I-TEAM: Time lost, money lost, lives lost

Published: Oct. 4, 2021 at 6:48 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A policy created by the former fire chief of the Augusta Fire Department kept firefighters outside of Nichoel Gaither’s front door for fifteen minutes while she pleaded for help. She died waiting on firefighters. Her family is also waiting. They are waiting on city leaders and the new fire chief to change the policy so no other family suffers the same loss.

We first shared details of Nichoel’s death and raised questions about the department’s policy with the fire department’s top leaders in July. The policy is still in place two in half months later. A spokesperson for the department will only give the response that the policies are under review.

The I-TEAM found a consulting firm, McGrath Consulting Group warned commissioners to look into the policies in November 2020. The firm also identified a slew of problems within the department stemming from policies.

“Quite frankly, I am not sure if the fire department’s policies are the city’s policies,” the McGrath representative told Commissioners in that November meeting. “If you continue to go down the road you are going...I am not an attorney, but I am pretty sure you are going to need one.”

The I-TEAM found Augusta taxpayers shelled out 25 thousand dollars for the consulting firm to tell the commission what problems exist within the fire department....like turnover, low morale, chain of command, and mandatory overtime. This was six months before Nichoel Gaither died inside her home with help right outside her door for more than 15 minutes.

As the consultant then said to the commission, “Get rid of the fire chief and put that one in? What is that the sixth or seventh one in x number of years? That doesn’t resolve the issue.”

Instead of reviewing the fire department’s policies as recommended by McGrath, the city and Chief Chris James parted ways at a cost of more than $113 thousand dollars to pay off his contract. Next, the commission hired a national search agency, GOVHR USA, to find the chief’s replacement at a cost of more than 14 thousand dollars.

Ultimately, commissioners did not even go with that agency’s recommendations, instead hiring Antonio Burden who was not included in the top tier of candidates.

In all, taxpayers spent more than 150 thousand dollars on the issues at the fire department; a cost possibly much higher for Nichoel Gaither, who paid with her life after policies were not amended.

Commissioner John Clarke sits on the Public Safety Committee that oversees the fire department. “To watch your story it was just heartbreak. And anger that none of us had heard about this....that we first heard about it on the news. That should never take place.”

Investigative reporter Liz Owens pressed further asking, “You are the chairman of the public safety committee. Should you have known about this?”

“I feel I should have known about this, yes. And I feel the other three members that did not know about it should have also been informed about it.” Clarke answered.

Owens: “We first shared what we uncovered with leaders at the fire department back in July. Two and half months (have passed) and the response we keep getting is that it’s still under review. How long is this review going to take?”

Clarke: “I cannot answer that because I cannot get an answer. That is as blunt as I can be.”

It’s all not good enough for Nichoel’s sister, Nichelle Gaither. “I want accountability....something needs to change.”

The I-TEAM found out of the 98 different fire department policies, only two have been revised in the past ten months. The forced entry policy, the one that contributed to Nichoel’s death, is still in effect.

Gaither’s family isn’t the only grieving family still waiting for a change.

Melquan Robinson was only 12 years old when he was electrocuted while playing at Augusta’s Fleming Park in 2018. A full three years later, the wires are still faulty and the park remains closed.

“Who bares the responsibility for the untimeliness of moving forward on life and death matters?” Owens asked Clarke. Clarke responded, “I think all of us do.”

Time ran out for Nichoel as she died from a pulmonary embolism, unable to breathe, while help had arrived and stood outside her door for those fateful fifteen minutes. Instead of breaking in to render aid, firefighters waited for a sheriff’s deputy to arrive; despite the fact Nichoel had already giving permission on a recorded line for her door to be knocked down and pleaded with dispatchers for help because she lived alone and couldn’t make it to the door.

Commissioner Clark says the time is now for a change. “I talked with the sister. I won’t say what she said. I did give her my word that I would not let this go. That I would find answers for her and that is what I am going to do. I just hope everyone will cooperate with me...I am sorry.”

The I-TEAM will continue to follow up with Chief Burton on his review of the department’s policy and procedures. In the meantime, commission has allocated the money for the repairs at Fleming Park, but still no word on when they plan to start the work.

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