By Gerhard Schneibel

Johns Creek is in the process of hiring 78 firefighters to form its fire department in the fall, and the higher salaries in the north Fulton city could cost Sandy Springs some of its fire safety employees.

Johns Creek already hired away Pat Wilson, the city’s former assistant fire chief. Wilson said that he received only a nominal salary increase and that he accepted Johns Creek’s offer as “a career move.”

Still, he acknowledged some Sandy Springs firefighters are dissatisfied with the pay. Sandy Springs “is an awesome place,” he said, “but there’s obviously some concern about the salaries.”

The starting base salary for a Sandy Springs firefighter in the lowest pay bracket is $32,445. The lowest salary being offered by Johns Creek is $37,500 for a firefighter with a high school diploma or the equivalent and two years of experience.

A Sandy Springs firefighter in the highest pay bracket starts with a base salary of $36,771. Johns Creek offers firefighters with a bachelor’s degree and six years of experience a starting salary of $46,097.

Firefighters working for Fulton County in the lowest pay bracket in 2007 earned between $33,968 and $54,382. Those in the highest pay bracket earned between $44,201 and $65,427. Officers in all three jurisdictions earned more.

There probably is some unrest among Sandy Springs’ firefighters, Wilson said. “Not all of them. I know a good deal of them are pretty happy.”

Sandy Springs firefighters can earn overtime, and City Manager John McDonough said the city supplements firefighter salaries with regular bonuses.

“That’s why we’ve been successful in recruiting,” he said. “When we started our department, we had something on the order of about 86 full-time positions, and we had 900 applicants.”

That was 18 months ago.

“We’ve made the determination that we’ve got a good compensation program,” McDonough said. “I think between the salary structure and the bonuses we provide that we’re going to be very competitive.”

Raymond Voght, a Sandy Springs resident and part-time firefighter in Roswell, noted that bonuses and overtime are not factored into pension plans.

“It sort of creates this shell game about what the compensation is,” he said. “I think standing by and watching senior leadership leave is detrimental because it creates a leadership vacuum within the department. … If you start filling it with entry-level people, you’re asking for somebody to get hurt.”

Voght lives in the city’s 2nd District, represented by Councilwoman Dianne Fries. She said the city pays its firefighters competitive salaries, but she wouldn’t be surprised if Johns Creek hired some of them.

“When we became a city, we did it to the other established cities. It’s very possible if Dunwoody becomes a city, they’re going to do it to Johns Creek,” Fries said.

Voght, however, said he is concerned about the Fire Department’s ability to work effectively and safely.

“Why are we shortchanging the firefighters?” he said. “Why aren’t we giving them the staffing they need and the compensation they need to do the job?”