Councilmen question use of fire trucks at private events

 

Kayla and Darrius Spraggins spray pink water from a hose connected to a Columbus Fire and Rescue truck during a gender reveal party at the bingo hall on Gardner Boulevard Monday. While CFR officials say they sometimes attend events at businesses at the request of business owners and managers, some city councilmen are concerned about public equipment being used at private events.

Kayla and Darrius Spraggins spray pink water from a hose connected to a Columbus Fire and Rescue truck during a gender reveal party at the bingo hall on Gardner Boulevard Monday. While CFR officials say they sometimes attend events at businesses at the request of business owners and managers, some city councilmen are concerned about public equipment being used at private events. Photo by: Chris Jenkins/Special to The Dispatch

 

From left, Martin Andrews, Stephen Jones, Charlie Box and Duane Hughes

From left, Martin Andrews, Stephen Jones, Charlie Box and Duane Hughes

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

Columbus Fire and Rescue firefighters from Fire Station No. 2 attended and helped with a private gender reveal party for an expectant couple at the bingo hall on Gardner Boulevard Monday night. 

 

At the party, expectant parents Darius and Kayla Spraggins held a hose connected to the tank of the fire truck and turned it on to spray pink water if the baby was a girl and blue water for a boy.  

 

A video of the reveal -- a 10-second spray of pink-tinged water -- was uploaded to CFR's Facebook page, and while both the couple and CFR employees said they were happy with the event, some city councilmen questioned whether a private event is an appropriate use of taxpayer-funded equipment. 

 

"I had no idea (the department was attending) until I saw it on Facebook but if it was a private event, I would think that isn't something the city should be doing," said Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones. 

 

"I wouldn't want to see it happen again," he added. "I would not agree with it." 

 

Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box agreed. 

 

"I guess it could be considered community service but I don't know if it can be justified in that regard," he said. "My first thought would be they need to quit doing it." 

 

CFR Chief Martin Andrews said the reveal and other events the department attends are a public service and a way for CFR to be visible in the community. 

 

"Public relations is a big part of what we are and that's what we try to do as long as it's nothing that violates city policy," Andrews said. 

 

"As long as the cost is minimum, I would do it," he later added.  

 

Mayor Robert Smith did not return calls from The Dispatch by press time. 

 

 

 

'Everyman test' 

 

CFR officials said the department frequently attends non city-sponsored events, from charity events such as Relay for Life to grand openings at businesses. Anyone who wants to have firefighters or CFR equipment at an event has to schedule it through Public Information Office Anthony Colom's office, typically at least two weeks in advance, and Assistant Chief Duane Hughes approves of the events. 

 

Hughes said he uses the "everyman rule" when deciding what to approve. 

 

"If it's something we can ethically and legally do for any citizen, or any organization, ... more than likely I will approve it," he said. 

 

An example of an extravagance he wouldn't approve, he said, is going to a private residence to fill up a pool because the department couldn't and wouldn't feasibly do that for every citizen. In fact, he said, firefighters typically don't go to private residences except for reasons like home safety inspections, to burn trash for residents who have a burn permit and of course on medical and fire calls. 

 

However, Hughes said, citizens may hold events such as children's birthday parties at Colom's office, in which case a fire truck will come by so that children can look at the truck. Firefighters will attend events held at businesses such as grand openings or re-openings.  

 

In the case of the Spraggins' party, a manager at the bingo hall contacted Colom's office and asked if firefighters could attend. In that case, Hughes said, the department worked with the business, rather than the individual, which provided the pink dye and firefighters made sure it was applied only to water in one section of the hose and not the 750-gallon tank the truck comes equipped with. 

 

Hughes said CFR probably attends similar events about five or six times per year.  

 

 

 

Costs 

 

The department doesn't charge to attend non city-sponsored events. Both Andrews and Hughes said the costs for the events is minimal for the department, because the firefighters and vehicles being used are already in service in their response area. 

 

But city departments are having to cut costs after Columbus ran a deficit of more than $1.7 million the last two fiscal years. Earlier this year financial consultant Mike Crowder predicted Columbus would be more than $338,000 in debt by October at current spending rates. Notable attempts to curb spending since that prognosis include three Columbus police officers who were promoted at the beginning of the year without receiving the pay raises that in years past would have come with those promotions. 

 

Last fiscal year, CFR was over its budget by just over $100,000, the bulk of which was overtime from firefighters covering for other officers out of town for training or disaster aid. Hughes and Andrews said this year, the department is having to cut costs by scaling back on some events. For example, CFR reduced its presence at Market Street Festival earlier this month, cutting both the number of department employees and vehicles that attended. 

 

Hughes and Andrews said they weren't sure how much the gender reveal party may have cost CFR, but said fuel costs were minimal and that the attending firefighters were being paid anyway. Hughes also said spraying the hose used about two gallons of water. The Facebook video appears to show significantly more than that, which Hughes said is due to a nozzle that disperses the water in a spray pattern that makes it appear like more water is coming from the hose. 

 

City Public Works Director Casey Bush did not respond to messages from The Dispatch requesting the cost of diesel fuel per gallon by press time. Hughes said it doesn't cost CFR anything to fill the water tanks. 

 

"We worry about any costs, but ... the fire department was built upon public relations and going out and helping people," Andrews said. "...We've got to pay the firefighters anyway. They're paid regardless if they're responding or not so it's not taking them out of service. The only thing that could probably be legitimate in that ... is the fuel cost, which is about two gallons. So I'm not going to let them go when we're in a financial crisis, but we just can't close the door to the fire department and say no to our citizens." 

 

Councilmen who spoke with The Dispatch said they were less concerned with costs than with whether it's appropriate for city equipment to be used for private events. Jones said if city departments participated in one private event for free, then they would have to participate in all such private events they were invited to for free.  

 

"If you have to use city resources for a private event, that is something you should not be doing," he said. 

 

Box was it was an issue the city council should look into further. 

 

"I don't think it's a big deal, but I think it's a big enough deal that we (city councilmen) need to look at it," he said. 

 

Dispatch reporter Amanda Lien contributed to this report.

 

 

 

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