The Hall County Board of Commissioners approved funding this morning for the purchase of a new firetruck with an aerial platform to replace the one involved in a July accident that seriously injured three firefighters.
Officials are hoping to absorb the cost of the new truck, in part by recouping its money on the faulty truck.
During a training exercise, firefighters TJ Elliott, Stephen Jackson and Will Griffin suffered back and spinal injuries when the bucket they were in atop a firetruck ladder fell 44 feet.
That truck has since been taken out of service while an investigation continues into the cause of the accident.
Hall County purchased the firetruck from Sutphen, an Ohio-based manufacturer, for $505,000. The truck is still under the limited warranty phase, a six-month period that began when it was delivered in April.
County officials told The Times they intend to sell the truck back to Sutphen and hope to recoup the purchase cost in full.
But there is concern that Sutphen might simply offer to fix the truck for Hall County, a prospect that could ultimately compel the two sides to settle their differences in court.
“There are obviously a lot of balls still in the air,” Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz said.
Replacing the truck is necessary for the county to retain its upgraded insurance rating, set to take effect in October, county officials said.
Officials said the new rating will likely lower homeowners’ insurance costs for residents served by Hall County Fire Services.
Hall County assembled a team of veteran firefighters to review and recommend a new truck to buy.
“The ladder search committee has worked feverishly to find the appropriate ladder truck to meet our immediate and future needs and I’m confident we have done that,” Interim Fire Chief Jeff Hood said in a statement to The Times.
Former Chief David Kimbrell was reassigned following the accident.
About $980,000 has been budgeted to purchase a truck with an aerial platform apparatus manufactured by Pierce.
County Administrator Randy Knighton said the truck is brand new, unlike the Sutphen model that had been previously used, adding that the county could receive the truck “relatively soon.”
Another $100,000 in contingency funds is likely to be approved for the purchase of additional equipment.
“We are planning to pay for the new truck primarily with SPLOST VI,” county spokeswoman Katie Crumley said in an email. “There may be a small amount, approximately 5 percent, that comes from the fire fund.”
Meanwhile, the accident investigation continues.
Lutz said the county was still in the preliminary stages of its inquiry, but has conducted extensive interviews with fire personnel, asked an independent group to examine the truck’s defects and reached out to other departments facing similar problems with their trucks.
“The worst-case scenario is that this thing ends up in court somewhere,” Lutz said, adding that it’s possible the injured firefighters will file a lawsuit seeking damages.
Federal investigators were also recently in Hall County to conduct their own inquiries, though it remains somewhat unclear just who is involved and what role they will ultimately play.
“(National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) did not do the accident investigation of the firetruck accident that happened in Gainesville,” Jose Ucles, a spokesman for the NHTSA, said in an email to The Times. “That was done by National Transportation Safety Board. Our agency did send a tech to inspect the actual firetruck, to support an ongoing investigation to help NHTSA determine if the remedy provided in recall 13V-565 by Sutphen properly addresses the safety defect in all of the vehicles subject to the recall. There will be no written report.”
Officials with the NTSB did not respond to calls seeking to clarify the agency’s part in the investigation.
Knighton said he was unaware of the agency’s presence in Hall.
The Times has learned that the Atlanta law firm Gray, Rust, St. Amand, Moffett & Brieske filed an open records request with Hall County in late August seeking reports, documents, photographs, diagrams, interviews, audio recordings and additional investigative materials related to the accident.
County officials said they believe the law firm is representing Sutphen, but calls from The Times seeking confirmation Wednesday were not returned.
Failures in the Sutphen truck’s extension cables were documented by the truck’s previous owner, Bluffton Township Fire District in South Carolina, which sold it back to the manufacturer in 2013.
After the accident with the same truck in Hall County was reported, Sutphen called for the voluntary removal of all aerial five-section devices the next day. Several metro Atlanta counties took their trucks out of service as a result.
Injuries resulting from similar malfunctions of Sutphen aerial apparatus platforms have been reported in Pennsylvania and Arizona in recent years.