By John Schaffner
Atlanta firefighters feel their department is understaffed
Battalion Chief Stephen Woodworth, of the C platoon of Midtown Fire Station 15, told the board of NPU-B on Feb. 2 that Atlanta Fire Rescue has 40 recruits in training, but will still have 60 vacancies when the recruits come on board.
Subbing for the Buckhead Station 21chief, who was answering a fire call at the time, Woodworth spoke bluntly that the department was “losing a lot of experience very rapidly” and the need for “getting more acting officers.”
“There are just not enough firefighters to fill all of the spots on all of the shifts all of the time in the city,” he said.
Woodward said firefighters “are trying to make up for the gap with technologies.” He said devices such as thermal locating units make it easier for firefighters to scout a fire for trapped people.
Still, he said, the department needs more firefighters in order to deal with emergencies, especially major emergencies.
The department is trying to get new “jaws of life” equipment, used by firefighters to cut open cars so they can extract injured people, because what now is available is ineffective on some of new materials used in vehicles.
Woodworth said budget projections for the department remain flat until 2014. He said 120 positions were eliminated from the department’s budget last year.
Part of the problem is pay, he said. An Atlanta firefighter with 16 years experience recently left the Atlanta department to work in Johns Creek, where he got an immediate $8,000 raise and knows he will receive step pay increments, which are annual increases. In Atlanta, “he knows he’s not going to get his step increases.”
Woodworth said the department will continue to experience “brownouts,” where trucks or fire stations are removed from service for a shift or a day because the department doesn’t have enough personnel to properly man all posts in the city due to absences for training, sick leaves or vacations.
Asked if the brownouts affect response times to fires, Woodworth said the only measure he can use is the increase in number of fires that escalate to a second or third alarm. In 2008, he said, there were 16 second-alarm fires and one three-alarm. In the first quarter of 2009, after brownouts began, there were 28 second-alarm and two three-alarm fires.