By John Schaffner

Mary Norwood

Former Atlanta City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Mary Norwood met with some 400 firefighters during the week of Feb. 15 to hear first-hand their assessment of the department’s issues and who should be the new fire chief.

She got an earful of complaints and made pages of notes.

Firefighters offered a variety of criticisms:

– “We have to have someone come on board who is an advocate for firemen,” said one of the 16 firefighters from three stations gathered at Station 21 on Roswell Road in Buckhead Friday afternoon, Feb. 19.

– “All we hear about is hiring 750 more police officers, not firemen,” another firefighter told Norwood. “We are so understaffed, it is pathetic.”

– “We have less equipment and less manpower than we had in 1981, and the city has grown tremendously since then,” another firefighter said. “Then, we had four to five people on a truck. Now, we are running trucks with three people.”

Firefighters complained of a lack of manpower, losses of seasoned firefighters and leadership, lack of equipment, low pay compared with other departments and lack of raises.

“We have 300 people that are leaving the department, and we can’t replace them,” one firefighter offered. “We have no money.”

One firefighter said that he had served under 14 chiefs since he joined the department. Another said, “we need someone committed to the city, who will want to stay here” and not use the position as a stepping stone.

Norwood asked interim Fire Chief Joel Baker for permission to meet with the firefighters in preparation for her work on a committee chosen by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to help select a new fire chief. She is one of 12 members of the committee.

Norwood said she would compile the comments of the firefighters and provide them to the other members of the selection committee when it meets Feb. 26.

The Buckhead Reporter was invited to listen in during the hour-plus-long session at Station 21, and agreed not to publish the firefighters’ names so that they could feel free to be candid with their remarks to Norwood. Firefighters asked not to be quoted by name because they feared retribution from higher ranking officers.

One firefighter said bluntly that he didn’t want anyone promoted to the position from within the department. A couple of seasoned firefighters said they felt Chief David M. Chamberlin, who held the post from 1990 through 1995, was the last fire chief.

There was a theme of what the firefighters wanted the committee members to look for in candidates for the chief’s job: a “fireman’s fire chief,” “a chief who goes to bat for us,” “a chief who will be upfront and a leader,” a person with integrity and a good communicator.

One firefigther suggested the city should go back to having a public safety director, as it did in the mid-1970s. That merged police and fire departments under a single leader and consolidated resources, he said.