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Helen fire chief's arrest puts him at odds with White County sheriff
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Helen Fire Chief Bert Smith talks about the possible consequences of the charges against him.

The White County sheriff and Helen’s fire chief remain locked in a bizarre standoff after the sheriff ordered the fire chief arrested two weeks ago. Each official points to the same Georgia law to claim he is right.

At about 2 a.m. Jan. 26, Helen Fire Chief Bert Smith was responding to an emergency call when he encountered a "safety checkpoint." Several White County deputies and a Georgia State Patrol trooper were monitoring traffic at the corner of Ga. 75 and Ga. 17, just south of Helen.

"We do two or three of these a month in areas of the county where we’ve had problems such as DUIs," said White County Sheriff Neal Walden. "We stop every car at an intersection. We check driver’s licenses and insurance, and we check for DUI or drugs if there’s a reason to be suspicious. It’s for the protection of the public."

Smith was driving his own Toyota Tundra truck, which is equipped with emergency lights and sirens. He was on his way from his home in Sautee to a residence in Helen, where a man had suffered a massive heart attack. Smith is a certified emergency medical technician.

With his lights flashing, Smith assumed he had the right to proceed through the intersection, just as fire engines are allowed to go through a red traffic light.

"I did slow down," Smith said. "I do not know how fast I was going because I was not looking at my speedometer. But I would estimate my speed at about 25 mph."

A few minutes later, Smith arrived at the Innsbruck community in Helen, where he began trying to stabilize the heart-attack victim, Steven Poulos. He then rode in the ambulance and worked to keep the man alive during the trip to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

Poulos underwent quadruple bypass surgery, but his heart had sustained too much damage, and his family decided to remove him from life support seven days later.

Smith said he felt he had done what he could, and he thought his role in the incident was over. But on Jan. 28, he was informed that he was under arrest and was ordered to report to the White County Detention Center for booking.

Smith, 47, was charged with one count each of failure to use due regard in operating an emergency vehicle, failure to obey authorized persons directing traffic and reckless driving. He spent about four hours in jail before posting a bond of $2,100.

Smith has been with the Helen Fire Department for 11 years, including the past four years as chief. He is the department’s only paid employee.

He said the arrest came as a shock.

"I’ve known the sheriff personally for 30 years, and our agencies have worked together many times," he said.

Smith is adamant that he’s done nothing wrong.

"It is not my intention to plead guilty to anything," he said.

As proof, he points to the section of Georgia code, 40-6-6, on which the charges against him were based. The law allows emergency vehicles to go through stop signs or red traffic lights, as long as they "slow down as may be necessary for safe operation."

The statute adds that drivers of emergency vehicles are not exempt from the "duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons."

That’s the part of the law that the sheriff says Smith violated. "He didn’t give due regard to the fact that the intersection was closed," Walden said.

When asked how Smith should have demonstrated "due regard," Walden said, "He should have acknowledged the officers. If they directed him to stop, he should have stopped. If they directed him to proceed, he should have done so."

Walden said his deputies would not have prevented Smith from responding to the emergency call. But he said Smith wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings and could have injured someone.

"I think Mr. Smith’s actions were clearly in violation of the state statute and endangered the safety of my officers," Walden said. "He’s been in this business as long as I have. He should have known better."

Smith said he doesn’t understand why he was charged with reckless driving. A misdemeanor, reckless driving refers to operating a vehicle in a dangerous or negligent manner, and in some cases the charge can cause a person to lose their driver’s license.

If convicted, Smith said, "There is a high likelihood that I would lose my job." With the reckless charge on his record, he said, the county’s insurance would no longer allow him to drive emergency vehicles.

Walden is aware of this, and said his department offered to drop the reckless charge.

"We were willing to sit down with this man and say if you do certain things, we would reduce the charge," Walden said. "(But) he seems to want to go forward on this."

Asked what are the "certain things" the sheriff’s office wanted Smith to do, Walden said, "I can’t go into detail because this may end up in court."

Smith said he has retained an attorney, who advised him "not to talk to the sheriff’s department without him being present."

Smith said the officer who wrote his arrest ticket offered him a "quote-unquote ‘bargain.’" But he said he would not make any concessions, "because I feel there’s no merit to the charges."

Meanwhile, local residents have flooded both Smith and Walden with calls and letters, mostly supporting Smith and condemning the sheriff’s department’s actions.

Helen business owner Austin Echols, a longtime friend of both Smith and Walden, said the situation is unfortunate.

"Bert doesn’t have an enemy in this town. And Neal Walden is also tremendously respected," Echols said.

"But this just doesn’t make sense. Bert is part of the (public safety services) team, and you don’t treat one of your own people like a criminal. They should have handled it with a reprimand, not by throwing him in jail."

Based on accounts from both sides, Smith’s offense appears to be that as he drove through the traffic checkpoint, he slowed down, but did not wait for a deputy to give him the go-ahead before proceeding.

Smith thought he didn’t need to; Walden says he did.

But Echols said if the officers were going to let Smith proceed anyway, it makes little difference whether a deputy actually gave the fire chief a signal.

"It sounds to me like somebody just got their feelings hurt," Echols said. "I think this has been handled unprofessionally. It just doesn’t seem right."

Smith said his arrest ticket sets a court date of March 11, though he hopes some sort of an agreement can be reached before then.

"What we have here," he said, "is different interpretations of an occurrence."