By Jonathan McFadden
CHESTER, S.C. — Rural fire chiefs have thrown their support behind two West Chester firefighters accused in an assault on Chester County deputies and will ask the state Attorney General's Office to investigate Sheriff Alex Underwood after a scuffle between deputies and firefighters at a crash site last week.
The decision to submit a letter to the attorney general came after fire chiefs from the county's 12 rural fire departments, and some EMS personnel, met behind closed doors for more than an hour Wednesday night.
The vote was unanimous, said John Agee, chief of the Richburg Volunteer Fire Department and chairman of the rural fire chief's association.
"The fire chiefs association stands solidly behind Chief (Andrew) Martin and his brother, Tommy," Agee said.
No deputies attended the meeting. Sheriff's Capt. Robert Sprouse, the deputy who authorities say Tommy Martin tried to tackle and Andy Martin shoved, told The Herald they were not invited.
If the meeting was called to discuss the incident last Friday, "I wish myself and/or a representative from this office would have been invited to attend," Underwood wrote in a statement.
The fire chiefs association is a private nonprofit, Agee said, and "under those auspices," only members of the organization were invited.
It's unclear when the fire chiefs will submit the letter to the attorney general. "The investigation will be what it is," Agee said.
Underwood told The Herald that he stands behind his deputies "100 percent" and reiterated a statement he made earlier this week that "you cannot put your hands on a police officer."
"The law is for everybody," he said. "We don't have anything against the fire department."
He has not considered involving the State Law Enforcement Division, he said, because he would not typically contact that agency when deputies arrest citizens.
The conflict between deputies and the firefighters began last Friday when several agencies responded to a truck accident and fuel spill on S.C. 9 west of Chester. After some disagreement on who would be responsible for closing off traffic, Highway Patrol troopers decided the highway would not be closed until a wrecker service could remove the truck.
Tommy Martin and Andy Martin "came up and began to complain," because they had wanted the deputies to stay and close the road, sheriff's officials say
A heated exchange between Tommy Martin and a sheriff's major ensued, during which firefighters made comments about Underwood's re-election in 2016 and the ongoing court battle between deputies and the county over control of 911.
Told a second time that the road would not be closed until the wrecker moved the truck, Tommy Martin shoved Underwood, the sheriff's report states. Sheriff's Capt. Robert Sprouse moved between Tommy Martin and Underwood, the report states, then Martin "began to fight and struggle" with Sprouse, grabbing the captain's leg after falling to his knees.
Deputies pulled Tommy Martin off Sprouse. Andy Martin yelled profanities at police, the report states, and was restrained when he began to struggle with police. Both Martin brothers were released on Friday, but arrested at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Andy Martin on Monday admitted that he made the comments about the election but called the way deputies treated him a "fiasco," adding that he was depicted as a "hardened criminal." He has since declined to comment, and so has his brother, Tommy Martin.
Sprouse on Wednesday said deputies did not arrest the Martin brothers until Saturday so the firefighters could finish helping with cleanup from the spill.
The cleanup, Sprouse said, continued on Saturday.
"The Sheriff could always go back later and deal with the unlawful conduct of the Martins," Sprouse said in a statement. "We feel extremely confident that the (two) dashboard cameras that recorded the incident will corroborate the facts in the incident report."
State laws maintain that "representatives" from each county fire authority have jurisdiction at scenes involving fires or "other emergency involving the protection life or property."
This authority gives them leeway to perform rescue operations, extinguish fires, evacuate hazardous areas.
"In the exercise of such power, the Fire Authority having jurisdiction may prohibit any person, vehicle, vessel, or object from approaching the scene" and can also remove any person, vehicle, "vessel, or object" which might impede with their rescue duties.
But, when issues of traffic come into play, the final word comes from the state Highway Patrol, Sprouse said.
"They have a say-so (for) anything on that," he said. Deputies don't investigate accidents: "We assist."
Copyright 2014 The Herald
McClatchy-Tribune News Service