By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran and a host of his battalion chiefs faced a crowd of 50 to 60 residents, members of the City Council and media at Fire Station 23 on Howell Mill Road in the Berkeley Park neighborhood on Saturday, Dec. 6, to explain why the city is shutting down that station on Christmas Day and keeping it shut until the end of the fiscal year June 30.

But, in a broader sense, the chief and his staff were there to explain how more than $13.1 million in cuts to the Fire Rescue Department’s budget this fiscal year will affect fire and rescue services and community safety in Buckhead and throughout the city.

The meeting’s organizers were there not only to hear the explanations, but also to garner support for a petition and for an e-mail campaign to keep the station open.

Through a series of cuts, the fire budget is down roughly 15 percent from $86 million to $73 million. Examples of the effects of the budget cuts:

• Personnel levels have been reduced by a total of 120 firefighters.

• Station 7 has been closed.

• Squad 4, responsible for hazardous materials, has been decommissioned, and Ladder Truck 12 on DeKalb Avenue will be “blacked out” from Dec. 25 to June 30.

• Station 23 on Howell Mill Road will be “blacked out” from Dec. 25 to June 30.

• Because of forced furloughs to bridge budget gaps, several stations and engines are subject to “brownouts” for lack of firefighter personnel. A brownout occurs whenever there are not enough firefighters to properly man a truck or engine. The brownout can last as little as 30 minutes but now is more likely to last 12 to 24 hours.

• The number of firefighters assigned to each engine and truck has been reduced from four to three, which affects the ability to get a fire under control and the safety of victims and firefighters.

• The training staff has been reduced from 18 to nine people.

• The 3-year-old program that monitored the health and wellness of the city’s firefighters has been eliminated.

“The first round, we cut the first three layers of skin; the second cut to the muscle,” Cochran told the people from nearby neighborhoods and businesses standing in the truck bays of the firehouse. “This third round, we cut to the bone.

“We simply don’t have enough firefighters to put on all of our trucks, so what to you do? Blackouts and brownouts.”

Cochran said the third round of cuts, totaling some $4.7 million, made the situation very public.

After a PowerPoint presentation by Cochran, the patient but angry audience began bombarding the fire chief and council members with questions. Along with City Council President Lisa Borders, council members Felicia Moore, Clair Muller and Ceasar Mitchell attended the meeting.

The questions ranged from why Station 23, which responds to a high number of calls per year, was chosen over Station 27, which responds to far fewer calls, to how committed Mayor Shirley Franklin is to the safety of the community and the firefighters.

One resident wanted to know why the mayor and council don’t simply place a $10 surcharge on every residence to make up for the cuts in the Fire Rescue Department’s budget. Moore said taxation measures have to begin in the mayor’s office and explained that once the funds are collected, the mayor has the sole discretion as to how they are spent.

Council members have transferred $1.2 million of the general fund to the Fire Rescue Department. That amount apparently could eliminate the need for forced furloughs, and it would help the department get closer to minimum personnel standards and expected response times.

Both Moore and Borders explained, however, that only the mayor can determine whether the $1.2 million will be used to eliminate furloughs or for some other purpose within the department.

The mayor did ask for a tax increase this year, but the City Council said no. Thus, the economic downturn has forced the city to make some difficult budget decisions, including cuts in the Fire Rescue Department.

The people at the Station 23 meeting clearly thought those cuts should be made elsewhere in the city budget and that police and fire should be fully funded. Among the cuts recommended at the meeting were the mayor giving up her salary, cutting the mayor’s staff in half, closing cultural affairs programs for a year, and reducing the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget by 50 percent.

It was determined that it would take $3 million to $4 million to eliminate the latest fire cuts, which council members said they can find. But it’s up to Franklin to allow those funds to be used.

Cochran indicated that private money will be needed: Fire stations might close if the private sector doesn’t step up.

The meeting was organized largely through the efforts Michael Wagoner, the incoming president of the Berkeley Park Neighborhood Association (BPNA). Station 23 has been a part of Berkeley Park for six decades. Until recent years, the BPNA held its member meetings in the truck bays of the firehouse.

The firefighters at Station 23 learned on Thanksgiving Day that their firehouse would close Christmas Day.

Wagoner said a petition is being circulated “to show opposition to closing Station 23 and demonstrate community support for the continued operation of this valued and integral part of our community.”

He said the petition, which at last report had about 1,000 signatures, will be taken directly to Franklin and Cochran in an attempt to change the current plan of action.

Engine 23 is the fire company housed at the station, which was built in Berkeley Park in 1948. It closed in November 1994 because of a lack of funding. The Berkeley Park Neighborhood Association was responsible for lobbying the city to reopen the station, which occurred Sept. 18, 1997.

Station 23 is one of four Advanced Life Support (ALS) stations in Atlanta. It responds to some 1,500 to 2,000 calls per year on average — one of the higher call numbers among Atlanta firehouses, many of which require ALS functions.

One of the major calls answered by Engine 23 was the accident of the Bluffton University baseball team bus, which catapulted off the Northside Drive overpass at I-75. Engine 23 was the first responder on the scene and was critical to saving lives that day, according to families and survivors of the accident, who have e-mailed letters to Wagoner in support of keeping the station open.