A total of three Columbia firefighters now have been fired over unprofessional Facebook postings aimed at Black Lives Matter protesters, and the city closed one fire station where the first post originated and put 31 others on precautionary lockdown, fire chief Aubrey Jenkins said Wednesday.
The Eau Claire fire station closed about 1 a.m. Monday after someone circulated its address on social media following Sunday’s protest, Jenkins said. It reopened at 8 p.m. Wednesday, he said.
Meanwhile, Richland County announced Wednesday it had fired a senior paramedic and said other ambulance service workers are under internal investigation for making inappropriate comments on social media. County officials declined to identify the paramedic or to disclose the language in the postings or to say who they were aimed at.
Jenkins said someone also called the Eau Claire fire station Monday to complain after now-fired Capt. Jimmy Morris first posted on Facebook his threats to run over protesters who had blocked the I-126 bridge during a march that started at the State House and wended its way through the city center to the interstate.
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The call was not a direct threat, but the release of the station’s address worried Jenkins. “I felt a need to protect our firefighters,” he said. The Eau Claire station’s fire truck and four firefighters who were on duty Sunday night were moved to a nearby station, he said.
Fire department spokesman Brick Lewis said all fire calls to the Eau Claire station were answered from the nearby station.
Tensions during the protest and the responses on social media to posts by Morris and other firefighters prompted Jenkins to direct all of the 32 stations in the city and Richland County to close their bay doors and secure all other doors, especially while away answering fire calls, the chief said.
While the Eau Claire station reopened Wednesday night, the lockdown for all stations remained in effect at least through Thursday morning, at which time Jenkins said he will re-evaluate lifting it.
Jenkins said he does not know who circulated the station’s address and said he does not know if it was protesters, individuals who support Black Lives Matter or people just upset by what firefighters were posting.
“I think people were just angry,” Jenkins said.
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The Columbia Police Department was notified of the call to the Eau Claire station and the posting of its address. “I don’t think they are investigating, no,” Jenkins said of police.
On Wednesday afternoon, Jenkins announced that two more firefighters were fired in the aftermath of the Facebook posts.
Dave W. Proctor, a senior firefighter who was hired in October 2013, and probationary firefighter Edward Augustyn, who was hired in February, were terminated over the Facebook postings, Lewis said.
Proctor was the firefighter who responded to Morrises’ initial Facebook remarks by writing, “Start running people over,” the chief said.
Morris had written on his Facebook page from the Eau Claire station about protesters who had blocked the I-126 access into Columbia. “Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses,” Morris posted.
A little later, he wrote, “Public Service Announcement: If you attempt to shut down interstate, highway, etc on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles in line because you ass WILL get run over!”
The remarks that got Augustyn fired were not immediately available Wednesday night.
Jenkins had been reviewing each day since Monday whether to reopen the Eau Claire station. Those reviews including talking to the firefighters and other personnel who work there to determine if they felt safe returning, Lewis said.
The department is unaware of any other inappropriate or threatening Facebook posts by firefighters, so the investigation is closed unless more comments surface, Lewis said.
On Monday, Jenkins announced he had fired veteran captain Morris.
On Tuesday, Jenkins said he was conducting another internal investigation of a firefighter who had commented on the Facebook thread. That firefighter is Proctor, the chief said Wednesday.
Jenkins did not disclose that a third employee was in the crosshairs of the probe until the terminations were announced Wednesday.
Despite the firing of three firefighters, Jenkins said in a prepared statement, “(T)his one poor decision should not reflect the character, dedication and professionalism of the men and women of the Columbia Fire Department.” Some 300 firefighters work in the joint city-county fire department.
As for the ambulance worker, a Richland County spokeswoman declined a request from The State newspaper for the person’s name. The state’s Freedom of Information Act requires that names and employment dates of all public employees be made public upon request.
Spokeswoman Beverly Harris also would not say what the former employee posted or who the social media post was aimed at.
The new acting county administrator, Gerald Seals, said in a statement of the firing of the ambulance worker, “The statements on social media were threatening and could be taken as the county having individuals, who because of their bias, may adjust their care – and that erodes public trust and is unacceptable.”
Staff writer Rachael Myers Lowe contributed.