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Chief ordered firefighters to block hit-and-run suspect

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – A St. Johns County Fire Rescue operations chief ordered a fire truck to block a hit-and-run suspect in a neighborhood where the crash happened, and advised other trucks where the pursuit was going, according to radio calls released by the Fire Department Monday.

A 17-year-old was involved in a hit-and-run crash about 10:45 p.m. Nov. 24 at the intersection of San Juan Drive and Ponte Vedra Boulevard, and continued to speed through the neighborhood, according to St. Johns County deputies.

LISTEN: Fire Rescue radio calls in hit-and-run incident

St. Johns County Fire Rescue Operations Chief Kurt Kaunath lives in that neighborhood and was off duty at the time. He heard the crash and went to investigate, but the teen left the scene.

That's when Kaunath jumped in his county truck and followed the teen. Then he got on the radio with his co-workers responding in Engine 10, a brand new truck.

The chief was still following the teen and asked for the firefighters' help to keep the driver from getting away. Kaunath asked the engine to block the road.

"Yeah, Doug, see if you can block Solano Road," Kaunath said in the radio calls. "He's coming toward you. He won't get you until Corona."

"What type of car is it?" the radio operator on the truck responded.

"Hey, Doug, it's an SUV," Kaunath said.

"Acknowledged. We are heading north on San Juan right now," the operator responded.

"SUV is in front of Ponte Vedra Club at this time, southbound," Kaunath said.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith commends the firefighters for trying to catch a suspect, but he said that's not their job.

"People with the Fire Department are not trained for pursuit driving, that is, how to go through intersections," Smith said. "They know how to do that as to respond to a fire. They are trained to do that."

Smith said the right thing would have been to call police with the license plate number and let them handle it.

Some residents agree.

"Yeah, I think that would definitely be a police matter," Eddie Ezelle said. "I think they should have called the proper authorities and had them take care of that."

"They probably shouldn't have done that," Dan Glimb said. "They probably should have called the police, and if you wanted to chase the kid, that's his own business, but for him to call to block the neighborhood, I don't think they should be using the county to do that."

The Fire Department defended the actions of its operations chief, who's been with the department for 28 years. The department released a statement, which reads:

"SJCFR has completed an internal inquiry into the incident and determined although the events described above are certainly not a normal occurrence, the Operations Chief was acting in the interest of public safety, the protection of the injured juvenile driver and the public traveling in the area. The intent of following the vehicle and order to block a road was not meant to place fire rescue crews at greater risk than many other emergency events encountered."

The teen eventually pulled into a driveway, where Ponte Vedra Inn and Club security caught up with him. Once police arrived, the fire crew left the scene.

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Lifetime Floridian anchors weekends and reports weekdays on issues in Nassau and Baker counties and beyond.