By John Schaffner
Capt. Silas Kevil of Atlanta Fire Station 21 in Buckhead informed the board of Neighborhood Planning Unit B on Oct. 7 of the major changes taking place in the department because of the municipal budget crisis.
Those changes involve the loss of 130 positions in the Fire Department: 89 sworn officer positions being eliminated and 41 vacant positions left unfilled. In addition, the city’s hazardous materials and special technical rescue operations unit was decommissioned.
Also, “relief days” were reactivated for fire personnel, which can result in occasional “brownouts,” in which not enough personnel are at a station to safely man the equipment.
“I brought the canned speech from our superiors,” Kevil told the NPU-B board members. “If you will indulge me, I will hit all the high points and answer questions.”
Reading from the script, Kevil said: “The city of Atlanta has undergone significant economic challenges, which has led to a $13.1 million budget reduction in the Fire Department. There were three rounds of budget reductions. The first was a $4 million, the second a $4.4 million reduction, and the third was a $4.7 million reduction.”
Describing what was accomplished in each round, Kevil said, “Essentially, in the first round vacant positions were left unfilled.”
He said that in the second round, some 62 sworn positions were eliminated, the homeland security chief and pubic education officer positions were eliminated, and a reorganization reduced the smoke alarm and car seat staffing and the EMS training staffing.
Also eliminated in Round 2 were firefighter health and wellness programs, he said.
In the third round of reductions, which the statement said did not have the mayor’s support, “Fire Station 7 was closed, Squad 4 was decommissioned, and relief days were reactivated for fire personnel,” Kevil said. The city also laid off 27 sworn personnel.
Squad 4 was the hazardous materials and special operations unit. With its elimination, Kevil said, “the focus has been shifted to some other units, developing some ancillary coverage to maintain those services.”
A Heavy Rescue Special Deployment Task Force was established, repositioning those service units in three parts of the city, including Buckhead, which has a unit at Station 21 on Roswell Road, just north of Peachtree Road.
Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran also recently talked about the $13.1 million budget reduction from $86.8 million last fiscal year to $73.8 million now to help close the city’s $140 million budget gap.
Cochran said he plans to redistribute some firefighters, which he conceded could increase response times to some emergencies. He does not plan to close any fire stations, but Cochran said he might shut down ladder trucks at a couple of stations, though not in Buckhead.
The National Fire Protection Association calls for fire departments to respond to fire and medical emergencies within six minutes at least 90 percent of the time. Atlanta did so 70.5 percent of the time in 2007 for fire calls and 70.3 percent of the time through July 1 this year.
Kevil said the heavy rescue unit is being added to Station 21 for a good reason. “Right now we have 17 high cranes in this area. We have to deal with how you get the crane operator down if he has a heart attack.”
Kevil explained that reactivating relief days will reduce staff levels at times below the minimums, a “brownout” situation, and some stations will have to close because of the reduction in staff. “On the surface, that sounds a little alarming. But we essentially have a similar brownout situation in full staff, especially when we have emergencies,” such as the tornado that hit downtown in the spring.
“I am a citizen and taxpayer of Atlanta, and I am protecting my money and well-being by being here,” Kevil said.
He added a small caveat: “The Fire Department is like a land-based Marine Corps. We are the first to arrive, the last to go and deal with all the dirty stuff. Police officers are wonderful people, and we are glad to have them to control the traffic.”