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Without a fire chief, Ga. city proposes a temporary shift in leadership

Tybee Island officials look to Chatham Emergency Management Services for guidance, stability

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A temporary shift in leadership is on the table after Tybee Island Fire Department’s chief departed last month.

Photo/Tybee Island Fire Department

Nancy Guan
Savannah Morning News

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — As the Tybee Island Fire Department (TIFD) currently operates without a fire chief, the city is proposing temporary management by Chatham Emergency Management Services (CEMS), previously known as Southside Fire, which operates in the county’s unincorporated areas.

The proposal could also put Tybee’s beach safety services, also known as Ocean Rescue, which operates under TIFD, under CEMS.

Thursday’s council meeting discussion of the issue was met mainly with opposition from the public and TIFD employees with concerns regarding employment, subscription fees and quality of service.

Mayor Shirley Sessions clarified that Tybee residents would not be required to pay a subscription fee during a temporary management period, which would last 90 days unless extended by another agreement.

She also reassured the public that current employees should not be worried about their employment status.

“They (CEMS) will be there for leadership. They would not be hiring and firing,” said Sessions.

TIFD’s previous fire chief, Matthew Harrell resigned June 16 amid an ongoing human resources investigation after being put on administrative leave for about a month. He was previously the department’s interim-fire chief before being promoted to chief in April. A job description for the position he held was posted Friday.

Sessions and council members expressed they want to take the appropriate amount of time to find a qualified fire chief. Candidates will be considered nationally as well as locally.

“We want to take our time and make sure we’re making the right decision and doing this in a process that’s thoughtful,” said Sessions. “We want to do the right thing for the safety of our community and certainly for the firefighters.”

Council member John Branigan urged the city to gather more momentum on the search and hiring process.

“We’re going to ask Shawn (Gillen) with help from (city attorney) Bubba (Hughes) to come back to us with an expanded list of options that’s more than just Southside (now known as CEMS) a quick period of time because we’ve got to act,” said Branigan.

Several members of the public said the city failed to communicate the proposal for temporary CEMS management before placing the item on the agenda. Council member Nancy DeVetter said they may have alarmed residents by putting the item on the agenda after coming out of an executive session, the details of which are not available to the public.

“Please take the time to meet with the firefighters,” said Marie Rodriguez, a Tybee resident. “Maybe there’s things you don’t know because you haven’t talked.”

City Manager Shawn Gillen told the Savanah Morning News if he had met with fire personnel to discuss the issue prior to publication of the agenda, that would have violated executive session rules. He said a meeting with fire department employees will be scheduled before a decision is made.

Chief Chuck Kearns of CEMS told the Savannah Morning News this proposal does not set anything in stone.

“It’s a fluid situation that will evolve,” said Kearns. “We have a long history of a good working relationship with Tybee in cases where either they need mutual aid assistance from us or we need mutual aid assistance from them. In the situation they’re in, this is nothing but good common sense.”

If the agreement goes through, Kearns said CEMS will be able to conduct a thorough review of TIFD and present an analysis to the city manager on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on.

The draft proposal states that a temporary fire chief and assistant fire chief from CEMS would provide leadership and management to the TIFD.

“They will help guide, bring some stability and motivation,” said Sessions, “and it would bring a clear understanding of what the roles and responsibilities would be in the department.”

Key takeaways from the discussion included ensuring that the language of the proposal did not indicate the city would pursue a long-term or permanent agreement with CEMS, pursuing a plan for Tybee to have its own ambulance on the island rather than relying on outside partnerships, and having the temporary fire chief be located on the premises at least full time (the current proposal indicates the chief would oversee the department remotely).

Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter covering Chatham County municipalities. Reach her at or on Twitter @nancyguann.


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