A case that raises questions of favoritism has triggered investigations by three public safety agencies of how police, firefighters and paramedics handled an Irmo assistant fire chief who was found unresponsive early Saturday in his fire vehicle at a Columbia restaurant.
Someone called 911 about 3 a.m. to report an unresponsive man in the McDonald’s parking lot, at 7410 Wilson Blvd. That is just north of I-20 where North Main Street becomes Wilson Boulevard.
Assistant Chief Clyde Thomas lives in Irmo and participated in a daylong fundraiser in downtown Columbia Friday and Friday evening, Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld said Thursday.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said Thursday they are investigating how their agencies handled the 911 call.
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Sonefeld is investigating on his own. Thomas has been at home on leave since Monday and still is receiving his salary, which is about $60,000 a year, Sonefeld said.
The police officers in two police cruisers and six Columbia firefighters who responded are not on leave, the chiefs said.
Holbrook and Jenkins said the call was treated as a medical emergency.
Thomas was not charged with any offense. The chiefs said they want to know why Columbia fire officials handled the call as they did and whether police officers followed procedures in determining no charges were warranted. Holbrook said he also wants to know why his officers did not file an incident report or an informational report and whether officers notified their supervisors after the incident.
Firefighters drove Thomas and his fire vehicle to the North Main Street fire station, which is the station that answered the 911 call. Then someone called Sonefeld, and Sonefeld drove to the station, picked up Thomas and took him home.
Police internal investigators are interviewing their officers as well as the Columbia firefighters who went to the scene, Jenkins and Holbrook said. The Columbia Fire Department has been without its own internal investigator for about a year since the previous one retired, Jenkins said.
Holbrook said he wants to know why his officers in two police cruisers did not file an incident report and whether they properly investigated whether Thomas was fit to drive, which is a question that arises with an unconscious person in a car.
Holbrook said the officers spent nearly 40 minutes at the scene, arriving four minutes after firefighters and an EMS crew.
Richland County spokeswoman Laura Renwick said a county ambulance arrived at 3:21 a.m. and left 26 minutes later. Renwick said Thomas was not taken to a hospital and that she could not because of federal medical privacy laws disclose if he received any treatment at the scene.
Thomas was hired as assistant chief about six months ago from the Hardeeville Fire Department, Sonefeld said. Sonefeld said Thomas was trying to get home after a long day Friday. The Pennsylvania native does not yet know the Columbia area well, which could explain why he got turned around on I-20, Sonefeld said.
“I found no signs of intoxication,” Sonefeld said in response to a reporter’s question. “No smell. I did not get that (signs of drunkenness) from those guys (Columbia police, firefighters and ambulance personnel).”
Sonefeld said Thomas told him he had drunk alcohol earlier Friday while he, Sonefeld and other Irmo firefighters were involved in an annual 5K fundraiser run in downtown Columbia.
Sonefeld said Thomas said he became dehydrated, wasn’t feeling well and left the fundraiser during cleanup after the event.
“He felt ill and pulled over (in the parking lot),” Sonefeld said of the account Thomas gave him. “The next thing he knew someone was knocking on his window.
“It looks horrible,” Sonefeld said. “But I’m looking at one, two, three, four different times that somebody could have done something (filed a charge). The days of favoritism have long passed.”
Columbia Fire Department policy does not spell out that favorable treatment is not allowed, Jenkins said. “The reason why we’re looking into it is we want to make sure our folks did what was right,” he said. “But I promise to be open and transparent with this.”
He declined to release Fire Department records about the call until the investigation is over.
“I know it doesn’t look good,” Jenkins said, adding he requested the police investigation and has not dug into the details because he will be the one to decide if firefighters will be disciplined. “We don’t go out and try to treat people differently.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.