Firefighter’s group questions Columbia’s fire chief

A state firefighter group and Columbia city officials each held news conferences on June 22 after the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina called Columbia-Richland Fire Department Chief Aubrey Jenkins’ leadership into question.

A recent fire at Tropical Ridge Apartments in the St. Andrews area led to the death of Irmo firefighter James Muller last month, and that event has sparked questions from the association.

Columbia leaders voiced support for Jenkins, while the association spoke of the department having staff shortages and outdated equipment.

On June 19, the firefighters group questioned the timeline of the apartment fire investigation that killed Muller. The group also said the fatal incident “exposes years of a chief’s neglect and deficiencies.”

Muller, 25, died May 26 after becoming trapped when a structure collapsed while he battled a fire at the Tropical Ridge Apartments in the St. Andrews area. Six other firefighters were injured in the collapse but survived. The Irmo Fire Department was assisting the Columbia Fire Department in fighting the blaze.

In the wake of the comments city and county leaders expressed support for Jenkins, who has been with the Columbia department for 44 years and has been the chief for 12 years.

Among those who support Jenkins are Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, City Manager Teresa Wilson, City Councilmen Ed McDowell, Will Brennan and Howard Duvall, Richland County Councilmen Overture Walker and Derrek Pugh, Richland 1 school board member Aaron Bishop, and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

One specific criticism by the association was over a preliminary report about the cause of the Tropical Ridge fire. The fire department said it had determined the fire started around a stove in the kitchen area of one of the apartments and was caused by unattended cooking materials and was ruled an accident.

The association questioned Jenkins for releasing that information, noting the incident is still under investigation by other agencies.

Local, state and federal authorities have been involved in the investigation of the fire at Tropical Ridge. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Response Team continues to investigate the apartment blaze and will issue a final report.

The Professional Fire Fighters Association Thursday press conference focuses on criticism of Jenkins’ leadership.

Roger Odachowski, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of South Carolina, said inadequate staffing and outdated equipment have been putting firefighters and the public in danger.

Odachowski said, using National Fire Protection Association standards for firefighting staffing, the Columbia-Richland department should have as many as 226 more firefighters.