Buckhead’s fire chief says the neighborhood could benefit from more stations, but there are not enough firefighters to staff them. The director of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation said at a recent Buckhead Business Association meeting that citywide the department is in a staffing “crisis.”
“We are actually in a hiring and staffing crisis,” said Shirley Anne Smith, the executive director of the Buckhead-based foundation at the June 28 BBA breakfast.
The department has nearly 200 vacancies. Out of 48 fire chiefs, 44 are eligible for retirement in the next two years. The department has the capacity to train 70 firefighters a year, but loses an average of 75 each year, Smith said.
Battalion 6 Chief Al Robertson, who said he grew up on Lindbergh Drive, said that while Buckhead has grown enormously in size, it has had the same number of stations for decades.
“It would be great to build new stations in Buckhead with our growth. The fact is, how are we going to staff them?” he said.
As the population grows, so does the department’s response time, he said. The target for emergency medical services and fire is around seven minutes, but the department is averaging about two minutes longer than that, he said.
The department expects the response times to get higher as density increases, he said.
“With the growth in Buckhead, all that means is that we’re going to need more and more year after year to help bring down response times,” he said.
Road improvement projects, such as the medians on Peachtree Road, have made it more difficult to get to calls, he said.
“One of the biggest issues we have, aside from volume, is beautification projects,” he said. “That really affects our response time. We can’t get around to you guys.”
Almost half of the departments calls are for emergency services, but, in addition to fire, they also handle gas leak calls, water rescues and fallen trees, he said.
“When in doubt, when 911 gets called and nobody knows who to send, we get called,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the fire department.”
The foundation, which operates out of an office on East Paces Ferry Road, is dedicated to raising funds to help fill budget gaps and vacancies.
“Our job is to make sure that the fire department, regardless of what’s in the city’s budget, has the funding they need to actually protect and serve the citizens of the city of Atlanta,” she said.
The foundation does this through fundraisers, like its hallmark “Breakfast with Our Bravest” that is held each year in Buckhead’s Flourish event venue, Smith said.
It also runs an “adopt a fire station” program that has individuals or groups donate supplies, equipment or funds to a station, Smith said.
Although the Atlanta City Council approved last month a 3.1 percent pay raise for police and fire fighters, the pay remains low and still needs increases or subsidizing, Smith said. One way the foundation encourages fire fighters to remain in Atlanta is through a $1,000 bonus to help them move to the city, she said.
“We’re working on a lot on just what is it going to take to have trained firefighters who have the resources they need to go out to your home and businesses to respond on any incident,” she said.
The department spends about $100,000 to train each firefighter, some who then leave to nearby cities or counties with better pay and benefits, Smith said.
“We are actually the lowest paying fire department in the metro Atlanta area,” she said.
Most of the fire department’s budget is allocated toward salaries and pensions, leaving little flexibility for new equipment and supplies, she said.
“While you might see an $88 [million] to $100 million budget, what we see are millions of dollars of unmet needs,” she said of the department’s budget.
As part of filling vacancies, Smith said the foundation is funding recruitment campaigns to draw people from underrepresented groups, such as women, Hispanic and LGBT people. The amount of firefighters from those groups is low compared to their population in the city, she said.
“As we start to change in our demographics as a city, we also want to look like the people we serve,” she said.