County rehires firefighter who was fired in 2016

The Whitfield County Fire Department has rehired a firefighter who was fired three years ago after employees of a business he owned were caught on video taking water from a utility’s fire hydrant.

County Administrator Mark Gibson and Fire Chief Edward O'Brien confirmed by email Tuesday that the department has rehired Timmy Ponders. Ponders was a lieutenant when he was fired in 2016. He was rehired as an engineer.

O'Brien said Ponders will receive "no back pay or other compensation."

"He lost any past benefits and starts as a new employee," he said. "He applied for the position and his certifications allow us to put him back on an apparatus. He has been gone for three years. He wants to work here."

Ponders worked as a full-time firefighter for 16 years and was a volunteer firefighter for 15 years before that. In an interview with the Daily Citizen-News in 2016 he acknowledged that employees of his pressure washing business were seen in the video taking water from a Dalton Utilities hydrant. Ponders said he had paid a $150 fee to Dalton Utilities and was “taking responsibility” for the incident and wanted “to make things right.”

Ponders was fired by O'Brien after the incident and his firing was upheld by the Whitfield County Merit System Personnel Board.

In a press release at the time, the fire department said an “investigation revealed that the allegations were substantially accurate and the department will not tolerate this conduct from a Fire Department employee, especially an experienced one.”

“Trust and good judgment are crucial aspects of a firefighter’s role and both have been severely compromised,” O’Brien said in the press release.

Ponders was rehired after responding to a job posting for a fire engineer.

"The entry level for a position is firefighter, the next level or rank is engineer," O'Brien said. "The engineer is a certified firefighter who has had additional training to operate (drive) the fire truck. Our typical staffing at a station is a lieutenant and an engineer."

O'Brien said five people applied.

"One other was hired from Chatsworth," he said. "One applicant was not qualified and the other two listed themselves as firefighters, we needed engineers."

Gibson said he supports the decision to rehire Ponders.

"The fire department chief (that brought discipline upon him in the first place several years back) indicated that he has been gone for three years, paid his price for any wrongdoing, lost all benefits from that time (and) has the training necessary to benefit and be an asset to the department immediately," he said.

Some commissioners said Tuesday afternoon they are comfortable with Ponders being rehired.

"He paid restitution for what he did," said Commissioner Harold Brooker. "He has been out of the department for three years. He wants to come back and make a contribution. He can make a contribution, and I believe he should be allowed to."

Board Chairman Lynn Laughter said the taking of water from a fire hydrant is "a pretty serious offense."

"I think that was dealt with properly at the time," she said. "I believe in grace, and I think the firefighter was a good firefighter and there has been enough of a lapse in time that those same mistakes will not happen again. I am very anti-lying or stealing, that is for sure. But we all make mistakes, and I like to think we are the kind of community that gives people a second chance."

A phone number for Ponders could not be found Tuesday afternoon.

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