By John Schaffner

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran told members of the Buckhead Business Association (BBA) Nov. 6 that after the dramatic budget cuts of this past summer, “the citizens cannot expect the same level of service for $73 million as they could expect for $83 million.”

With the 15 percent budget cut, Cochran said, the present budget mirrors what the Fire Rescue Department operated under in 2003.

“We can only provide the level of services that our citizens have the ability or willingness to pay for,” he said.

At the age of 5, Cochran was spellbound by watching firefighters battle a blaze across the street from his home in Shreveport, La. That led to a 26-year career in that city’s Fire Department before he was recruited to become chief of Atlanta’s Fire Rescue Department in January.

Now he finds himself fighting not only fires, but also City Hall for the resources firefighters need to do their job and meet the city’s service expectations.

“It is time to say something about the value of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department,” Cochran told members of the BBA at its weekly breakfast meeting. “There is an expectation that citizens have a fire department that we are destined and obligated to meet. In many cases, the expectations of the department outweigh the resources available.”

The department covers 132 square miles in Atlanta with just under 1,000 employees, far fewer than required to cover all the trucks at all the stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The department is expecting 50,000 calls this year, with emergency medical service (EMS) calls being the highest volume.

Cochran said one of the department’s goals has been to have four firefighters on every truck at every station during every shift 365 days a year, with the heavy rescue trucks being manned with six firefighters. But he said the budget cuts do not allow for that.

Noting that the fire budget for fiscal 2009 was cut from $86 million to $73 million, Cochran said: “We are able to maintain a high level of effective emergency response services, but we have some internal challenges from the cuts that have really made it very difficult to maintain the same level of efficiency.”

Discussing with the Buckhead Reporter the issue of pay equity with the Police Department, Cochran indicated that such equality has not been a priority or even a goal of Mayor Shirley Franklin. “Maybe when a new mayor is elected next year, that person may view the parity issue more openly.”

In the meantime, the chief made it clear that the department needs financial support beyond that available through the city budget. He said the vehicle for that support is the Atlanta Fire Foundation, which is led up by a former Atlanta fire chief, William Rhodes.

One of the things Cochran focused on was the poor living conditions at many neighborhood fire stations. He indicated there is no money in the budget for physical improvements at the stations, but those conditions could be improved by neighborhood groups working through the Fire Foundation.

Last year the Buckhead Alliance sponsored a fundraising campaign to improve conditions at Station 21 on Roswell Road just north of Peachtree Street. Because of some snafus downtown, it took time for the money to get back to Station 21 to make repairs, but the mission finally was accomplished.

Earlier this year, the Reporter ran a story about neighborhood groups in Buckhead that were working to improve living conditions at Station 27 on Northside Drive.

But an even bigger problem than the living conditions at the fire stations is the number of firefighters approaching retirement. Fully one-quarter of the firefighter force is reaching retirement age in the next three years. Cochran said the retirements pose a major challenge.

“We have organizational priorities whereby we justify everything that we do. Our first priority is that we have to have human resources. We have to have people. We have to have enough people. And, to get the best people to provide the services, we need to have competitive programs, salaries and benefits to meet the needs of those people,” Cochran said.

“Not only do we need people, we need professional training and development programs to have highly skilled personnel from the firefighter level to the fire chief level,” he added. “It does us no good to have our trucks loaded with personnel that don’t have the competencies appropriate to provide the services you need when they arrive.” So, he said, that is the department’s second priority.

“Our third priority is emergency response readiness,” Cochran said. “There are expectations of services that a fire department should provide, from a choking baby to a husband having a heart attack, from a jetliner crash at Hartsfield/Jackson Airport to a high-rise fire.

“There is a litany of emergencies that you expect for us to respond to and be capable of performing the tasks that will mitigate those emergencies any time you need our help.”

Cochran said the department’s fourth priority is to meet its mission to protect life, property and the environment. “Our job is to facilitate those things in our community so that we prevent the heart attack, prevent the fire, and when the emergencies do occur, we empower our citizens with knowledge and information to take care of themselves as best they can until we arrive on the scene and take over.”