Consulting firm to look into fire marshal's office

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County officials are asking an outside consultant to give advice on running its fire marshal's office, a week after three division officials stepped down amid a scandal.

County Administrator Jock Connell said employees of South Carolina-based Hammett Consulting will report to the fire marshal's office Monday to begin a six-week study into the operation. The cost of the study wasn't revealed.

Last week, officials revealed that 30 local schools hadn't received annual fire safety checks as a county policy had mandated. Some schools hadn't been inspected in five years.

While officials said the schools were never in danger, the poor records and management discovered during an investigation led to the resignation of the county fire marshal and a captain in the department as well as the retirement of a senior inspector. The issue was also at least partly to blame for the forced resignation of Fire Chief Jack McElfish the week prior.

Connell said the consultants are being brought in to make sure every mistake was accounted for and provide advice on process, policies, procedures, supervisory techniques and prioritization of work.

"I think this situation was serious enough that it warrants it," Connell said. "I want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again."

During the county commission's annual retreat last November, Connell pledged to study efficiencies in at least three areas of the government in 2006. While he did not plan at the time to review the fire marshal's office, he said the money to pay for the consultants was set aside according to that plan.

Hammett Consulting already has a contract with Gwinnett's internal audit division and has done reviews of the county's corrections, purchasing, police, transportation, fleet and information technology operations. As the internal auditor for Richland, S.C., the company has studied a fire marshal's office, Connell said.

"What went wrong here is people weren't doing their job," Connell said. "I've got a firm that's focusing on process. This firm has been doing stuff for us for years. ... I want to make sure we haven't missed something."