Increased oversight at college firehouse

COLUMBIA -- A Tuolumne County fire station on Columbia College's campus no longer faces restrictions on which emergency calls it can respond to.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection placed the firehouse on restriction in January after several fire students were accused of hazing other students. For nearly eight months, firefighting students could only respond to emergency calls on campus and not to off- campus emergencies.

The restriction was lifted this month after the community college signed a memo of under- standing with the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors. Under the agreement, Columbia will pay CalFire $140,000 a year to reimburse the cost of a battalion chief to supervise the firefighting students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Columbia spokes- man Doug Lau said.

After the hazing allegations, officials sought to increase oversight in the firehouse.

Seven current or former Columbia students have been charged after a Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department investigation and review by the district attorney's office.

Michael Sacheli, Cary Gregg and Timothy O'Neill each are charged with one count of mis- demeanor hazing. They have pleaded not guilty and are headed to a jury trial in January.

Michael Rossi, Aaron Means, Christopher Ingram and Brian Cole each are charged with one count of misdemeanor hazing and one count of misdemeanor battery, according to court documents. They have not pleaded and are due in court Wednesday.

Hazing is any type of initiation activity into a school organization likely to cause serious bodily injury. Battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence.

The hazing allegations include tampering with firefighting equipment, poisoning food and beating up a newer student at an off-campus party in January, according to a lawsuit filed against Tuolumne County by one of the alleged victims.

Former firehouse supervisor Preston Birdwell will remain on staff overseeing the station and its budget.

Columbia's fire station is staffed by students enrolled in the fire program through a partnership with CalFire and the Tuolumne County Fire Department. Lau didn't have figures on how many students are enrolled in the fire academy. Last year, the program's Web site listed about a dozen students and 18 volunteers at the firehouse.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.