By Gerhard Schneibel

While the city of Johns Creek launched its Fire Department with a public ceremony Oct. 11, the city of Sandy Springs was preparing to send 12 new recruits to the Georgia Fire Academy in Forsyth County.

The recruits will replace firefighters who left for higher pay in Johns Creek.

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

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

Sandy Springs firefighters also are paid significantly less than Fulton County firefighters.

Former Sandy Springs Assistant Fire Chief Pat Wilson left for Johns Creek in July but said he accepted the job as a “career move” and received only a nominal salary increase. Still, he acknowledged there was some dissatisfaction among Sandy Springs firefighters about pay.

Along with Wilson, those who left include five captains, two drivers, a paramedic and two firefighters. Johns Creek has since completed hiring firefighters for its 78-person department.

Sandy Springs Fire Chief Jack McElfish said the vacant leadership positions will be filled through internal promotions. He said that the recruits will be ready for service in six weeks and that citizens likely won’t notice a change in quality of firefighting services.

“We hate to lose them, but the people that are qualified were moved up,” he said. “Basically, you’re only losing two people off of each shift anyhow. So we fill that with overtime personnel or part-time people that are already trained anyhow. There’s no change whatsoever.”

Raymond Voght, a Sandy Springs resident and part-time firefighter in Roswell, has long advocated higher pay for city firefighters. He insisted that firefighters’ safety is being put at an undue risk by hiring a batch of 12 rookies.

“The bottom line is the people that are going to fill those spots are absolutely green,” he said. “Even with promotion from within, you’re bringing in 12 people with a minimal amount of experience to replace … people that had years and years of cumulative experience. You’re just basically asking for someone to get hurt.”

Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough said the new recruits represent a “small portion of the force” and “will be well trained.”

The city trained a batch of new recruits when it was formed, he said. “We’ve already done it once. Those guys have been here two years; they’re now getting promoted.”

The Sandy Springs Fire Department employs 90 full-time and 60 part-time firefighters and two clerks.