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Mayor mistaken on claims about emergency response during August tornadoes

POSTED: November 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

This Office Depot shopping center was damaged when it was hit by a tornado Aug. 26.

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During at least two meetings in the last week, Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras incorrectly told audiences that county "islands" within the city limits caused a problem with emergency responses to the Office Depot shopping center when a tornado hit it in late August.

Figueras twice told audiences that the city’s emergency responders were the first to arrive on the scene when a tornado hit the Office Depot shopping center — a county island — on Aug. 26, and then had to wait for permission from the county to begin relief efforts.

Figueras used the statement to exemplify why the city needs to annex about 561 properties that are considered "islands" in the city limits.

"What the city needs to do is to try to define its boundaries," Figueras said at a meeting Monday. "I gave an example of when the storm hit the other day at the Big Lots shopping center, city people had to wait to get permission from county people — even though they got there first — to deal with the problems that were actually there. It is so important that our public safety and public works people know which is their boundary and where they need to work."
But the statement — made Monday at a public information meeting for property owners affected by a mass annexation of county islands and previously at a meeting of the Economic Development Council of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce — is not correct, according to documents from Hall County Dispatch and Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle.

According to the reports, Hall County’s Engine 7 arrived at the Office Depot shopping center at 4:10 p.m. on Aug. 26 — 11 minutes after a wireless caller reported a tornado in the area.

The city fire department arrived on the scene at 4:19 p.m., according to the report.

Even if the city fire department had arrived at the shopping center first, city fire fighters would not have had to obtain permission from the county department to begin relief work because of an agreement between the county and city agencies, Cagle said.

The automatic aid agreement makes it possible for the agency that is closest to an incident to respond despite municipal boundaries. Under the agreement, Gainesville fire fighters would be the first ones sent to an emergency at the Office Depot shopping center, although it is in unincorporated Hall County, according to Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada.

The only time city fire engines would not be the first dispatched to that shopping center is if they were on another call, Canada said.

"We definitely don’t have to give permission (for) the other jurisdiction because of the automatic aid agreement in place," Cagle said. "Automatic aid is used on a daily basis, not just when big events happen like the tornado, but on a daily basis, and it works very well."

Both Cagle and Canada said that the only time jurisdiction matters in these areas is when the incident warrants an investigation such as one for the cause of a fire.

When reached for comment Wednesday, Figueras did not refute Cagle’s statement.

"He’s the pro, and I go right along with what he said," Figueras said.



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