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Arrests Pit S.C. Sheriff Against Firefighters

CHESTER, S.C. -- The fire chiefs from all 12 of Chester County's volunteer fire departments will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday night after one of the chiefs and his brother -- a former Chester County Council member -- were arrested last weekend following a scuffle with Sheriff Alex Underwood and other deputies at a wreck scene.

And despite what many say should point to an outside probe of what happened because the sheriff and his officers are the alleged victims, and the politics of an ongoing lawsuit over control of Chester County's 911 emergency dispatch system between county officials and the sheriff, the State Law Enforcement Division has not been asked to look at what happened.

The fight matched people who have known each other for years and responded to emergencies together.

But now, Sheriff Underwood is pitted against firefighters, almost all of whom in Chester County are unpaid volunteers. Some are livid and claiming that Underwood overstepped his bounds and overreacted.

The fire chiefs' association will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Chester County administrative building in Chester, said John Agee, Richburg Volunteer Fire Department chief and chairman of the association. The meeting of the nonprofit group will likely adjourn into executive session so the chiefs can review what happened when Andy Martin, West Chester chief, and his brother, volunteer firefighter Tommy Martin, were charged with assault, Agee said.

Agee declined to comment on the incident, but the association is expected to issue a statement about the concerns of the fire chiefs after the meeting Wednesday night.

SLED has not been asked to intervene and take over the investigation and prosecution of the case, said agency spokesman Thom Berry.

The prosecution of the arrests remains unclear. The Martins are charged with misdemeanor assault, not felony assault on a police officer that would be handled by Chester County prosecutors. In misdemeanor cases such as speeding tickets and misdemeanor criminal cases, law enforcement officers may act as the prosecution. But in this case, the officers are the alleged victims.

Doug Barfield, 6th Circuit solicitor, said Tuesday he has not been briefed on the case. The trial is set for 10 a.m. March 13 in Chester County magistrate court.

Underwood alleges that Tommy Martin pushed him then fought and struggled with another deputy at a wreck scene on S.C. 9 west of Chester Friday afternoon. The sheriff and his deputies also say Andy Martin pushed and pulled deputies and had to be restrained after yelling.

The incident started when deputies who first responded to the scene left despite the firefighters' asking that the road be closed. The police incident report stated the S.C. Highway Patrol trooper on the scene determined that the road would not be closed until the wrecker arrived. Chief Andy Martin allegedly made comments over the emergency radio system about the upcoming sheriff election in 2016, and Underwood and his top deputies showed up. The incident escalated into the Martins using obscenities and the physical altercation, police say.

Deputies arrested both Martins Saturday night at home -- more than 24 hours after the incident -- and the men, who have more than 40 years of volunteer service each, spent the night in jail before being released Sunday morning on personal recognizance bonds.

Tommy Martin was a Chester County Council member until 2008, and before that he served six years on the Chester County school board. He has declined comment.

Andy Martin told The Herald on Monday that the police handling of the incident was a "fiasco." Reached again Tuesday, Martin declined further comment saying he was advised not to say anything. Asked if he had hired a lawyer, Martin also declined comment. Magistrate court records do not show lawyers for either Andy or Tommy Martin, court officials said.

Underwood said in a statement that assaulting a police officer will not be tolerated and that no one is above the law, but he could not be reached Tuesday for further comment.

It remains unclear what sanctions, if any, will be leveled against Andy Martin in his role as fire chief. The volunteer fire departments in the county are governed by the Chester County Fire Service, which gets its direction from a seven-member rural fire commission with one appointee from each county council member. That commission has not yet met to discuss what happened between the Martins and police. Andy Martin serves on that rural fire commission and last year was its chairman.

Andy Martin, incident commander at the scene Friday, has not submitted a written incident report from the wreck to the county fire service, but he's only required to furnish reports quarterly, according to Ben Thomson, Chester County deputy fire coordinator.

The Chester fire chiefs association, Chester County's rural fire commission that governs the volunteer departments, and the public need to know what happened at that fire scene, said Robert "Bobby" Jones, chairman of the Chester County Rural Fire Commission, which Chester County's website shows has authority over the county fire service and the volunteer departments under it. The county fire service, under authority from the commission, ensures that volunteer fire chiefs and firefighters "are trained properly in firefighting techniques and in use of equipment and are able to respond to fire emergencies and other fire related situations." The fire service also keeps records of rural fire department calls and training and conducts fire investigations and "complaint investigations" in Chester County.

Jones said he has not been given a report on what happened Friday. He declined to comment on the specifics or what the commission might do, saying "there are two sides to every story."

Andy Martin, elected chief by the 20-plus members of the West Chester department, remains the department chief. His department's own members could take action but have not done so. The fire commission also has not taken any action, Jones said, because the facts are still unclear. Any talk of disciplinary action against Andy Martin is premature, Jones said.

"We still need to find out who said what, and when, and what happened," Jones said.

Jones said, he has known Andy Martin for years and respects his volunteer service to the community, and at the same time has "the utmost respect for Sheriff Underwood."

Yet the argument and ensuing scuffle over who is in charge at an incident needs to be addressed because deputies and firefighters must work together at emergency scenes, Jones said.

"Emergency service is a big family," Jones said. "If there is an incident and the police need manpower, it is the volunteers who are used. We got to work together."

The rural fire commission meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the Chester County Fire Service Office on Saluda Street and likely will address what happened, Jones said. That meeting is open to the public.

The S.C. State Association of Fire Chiefs has not formally been asked to look into what happened, said Belton Fire Chief Alan Sims, executive director of the state chiefs' association. However, Sims said, he would expect SLED to handle the criminal investigation.

"You almost need another party to look at it," Sims said. "I would think SLED would be asked to look into it to see who is right and who is wrong."

Yet Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, a lawyer, said although he has not been briefed on what happened, he does not know that SLED needs to be involved.

"This seems to be a local issue and should be resolved locally," Delleney said.

More, there is a political arm to what happened, as the police report from the incident mentions talk during the argument and scuffle over the election and ongoing legal battle between the sheriff and county for control of Chester County's 911 system. Andy Martin acknowledged he made comments about the 2016 sheriff election over the emergency radio.

There are state laws that protect firefighters from interference at scenes, and it is still undetermined if proper procedure for incident command was followed by all involved, said Jones, the fire commission chairman who served at Rossville Volunteer Fire Department in Chester County.

Chester County Emergency Management Director Eddie Murphy, fire chief at Lando in eastern Chester County who was at Friday's wreck scene but did not witness the scuffle, told The Herald that typically a joint command would be established at such a scene, then a joint decision on road closings would be made.

The incident was not addressed at Monday night's Chester County Council meeting, according to several members who attended. Underwood and several deputies attended the meeting but did not mention the incident during the meeting.

"This is a bad situation," said Archie Lucas, a Chester County Council member. "No matter where you stand on this, these people (firefighters) are volunteers, and we need 'em. If it wasn't for volunteers in Chester County, with the fire departments and rescue squads, we would all be in a world of trouble."

Alec Oliphant, another council member, said the incident shows the need for county sheriff cars to have dash cam video, which would have documented the scene. Chester County Sheriff's Office cars do not have dash cams, Oliphant said.

"We should have at least one car per shift that would have it," Oliphant said.

Copyright 2014 - The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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