Chief walks out of planning meeting

Published 12:47 am Sunday, July 19, 2015

A discussion whether to close one of the city’s six fire stations at a Board of Mayor and Aldermen work session Friday turned contentious after Mayor George Flaggs Jr. criticized Fire Chief Charles Atkins, causing the chief to walk out of the meeting.

The incident occurred during a discussion with the city’s fire department committee over proposed changes in policy and whether to close either Station 6 on Cherry Street, Station 7 on South Washington or close the Central Fire Station and relocate it on a site on East Clay Street near Interstate 20.

Flaggs wants to close Fire Station 7 by October, the start of the city’s fiscal year, to reduce firefighter overtime and to meet state regulations requiring three firefighters per pumper.

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He also wants to reduce duplication in coverage, based on a Central Mississippi Planning and Development District report on the fire department showing several areas in the city with coverage by multiple stations.

Atkins has opposed closing any station until a new station is built. The disagreement came to a head Friday during a discussion over whether to close a station other than 7.

“If I had a chief sitting in that seat that understands analytical data, and was competent enough to understand what I’m talking about, I think we’d have it (the changes the mayor wanted),” Flaggs said.

As Flaggs returned to the discussion on the cost of moving the Central Fire Station, Atkins slowly gathered his papers, got up and prepared to leave.

“I’ve been called incompetent. I’m going to leave right now until I get a better situation going,” he said as he walked out.

“After numerous meetings and discussions with Mayor George Flaggs Jr. and other officials at city hall, I thought we had reached a common ground regarding the Vicksburg Fire Department and the citizens we serve and protect,” Atkins said after the meeting. “It is my position as chief of the Vicksburg Fire Department to first build new stations rather than close the older stations we discussed in the conversation we had today.

“If 31 years in the fire service and six years as chief, does count for anything, then the citizens know we will do everything we can to protect lives and property in the city at all costs.”

The mayor said later he would have the board ask CMPDD to recommend which station to close.

The Friday meeting was the latest in a series of meetings about the fire department that began in May after Flaggs received a copy of a 2012 letter from the state’s Fire Rating Bureau that highlighted some deficiencies in the department. At the time, Atkins said most of the issues had been corrected.

Station 7 is one of two stations under consideration for closing. The other is Station 6 on the north end of Cherry Street near the Warren County Courthouse. Station 6 is also proposed to be the station relocated to a new building to be built on East Clay Street near Interstate 20.

Earlier in the meeting, City Attorney Nancy Thomas, who is also a committee member, suggested relocating the Central Fire Station early in the meeting — an idea Atkins said had been discussed several years ago.

Relocating or combining Station 8 with Station 7 was also discussed.

Moving Central to East Clay, Atkins said, would allows the fire department to have a platform truck, pumper, rescue truck and ambulance to cover Merit Health River Region Medical Center and handle accidents on Interstate 20.

After Atkins left, Flaggs told Alderman Michael Mayfield that relocating Central, which would include moving the department’s administrative staff and records, would be double the cost of building a new substation. “You could be talking about $8 million,” he said.

Besides closing or relocating a station, the board discussed committee recommendations to reduce the age for hiring firefighters from 21 to 18, implement a lateral transfer policy that would allow firefighters from other departments to transfer to the Vicksburg Fire Department, allowing some paramedics to work part-time, and a tier system for paying firefighter salaries. The tier system is designed to reduce overtime in the department.

Atkins’ request for an emergency medical services training officer to be cross-trained as an inspector and investigator and a fire investigator to be cross-trained as an inspector were discussed briefly with no recommendation.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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