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Firefighters kept at bay while church burns

By Ed Brock

Morrow firefighters offered to help fight the fire that severely damaged Evangel Temple Bible Church but were told instead to go home even though extra county units were called to the scene.

That was because the seven-person team from the municipal department wasn't large enough to meet the county's requirements, Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas said.

According to Morrow Fire Capt. Jon Williams' report of his team's response to the May 22 fire at the church on Rex Road the Morrow units originally responded to Travelers Rest Baptist Church in Lake City, also on Rex Road, shortly after the alarm was received at 11:08 p.m.

They were then advised by radio dispatch that the fire was in unincorporated Clayton County at Evangel Temple and, seeing smoke coming from the area, Williams decided to continue on to Evangel Temple.

"On scene I found (Clayton County Fire Department) units already on call and appeared they had just begun operations," Williams wrote in his report. "I reported to command ([Clayton County Fire] Chief Alex Cohilas). I asked if he needed help and he replied that he didn't call us. I then asked if he was canceling us and he advised he had enough help but we could stand by."

While standing by, Williams reported, he heard on CCFD radio that Cohilas "called for a second alarm," requesting more county units to respond.

The county fire department requires a 16-member team to respond on a second alarm, Cohilas said.

"They did not have the manpower necessary to meet our requirements," Cohilas said. "I appreciate their help, but they simply had nothing to offer over and above the resources that were already available."

Cohilas said he did not call on Morrow for assistance under the mutual aid agreement between the two departments because they do so only when they have exhausted all of the county's resources. Also, to utilize the Morrow team would have left the city defenseless in the event of another fire there.

Finally, since the two departments haven't trained together, Cohilas said, he didn't want a "hodgepodge response" to the fire that would have been less effective.

Morrow Fire Chief David Wall said he didn't want to comment on the specific incident beyond what is in Williams' report.

"In general we are always available to help whenever needed irrespective of jurisdictional boundaries in any immediate emergency," Wall said.

Arson teams combed the church debris the day after the fire trying to determine if arson was to blame.

The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation but appears to be electrical, Clayton County Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Hood said.

Evangel Temple Pastor James Richter had no complaints about the response to the fire.

"From what I can see, whoever fought the fire did a great job," Richter said. "I don't see it determining the outcome."