Niles Ford, Chamblee city manager

Chamblee’s new city manager Niles Ford is no longer in the business of fighting fires – at least not the literal ones.

After 19 years of battling blazes himself and managing others who do, the former Lincoln, Neb., fire chief is now in charge of running a town. He’s been at the job for more than a month.

Prior to coming to Chamblee, Ford had never been a city manager, but the former fire chief said his management experience has prepared him for the job.

“I won’t avoid the fact that there are differences [between being a fire chief and city manager],” Ford said. “It is still public administration and it’s still management.

“My career goal was ultimately to be a municipal manager. I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” said Ford, who is 46.

Ford comes from a city with a population of more than 280,000 in a fairly remote part of the Midwest to a much smaller town that’s inextricably connected to a larger metropolitan area of more than five million people.

Ford’s move to metro Atlanta is more of a homecoming. Prior to taking the fire chief job in Lincoln, Ford served for four years as deputy fire chief of the Fulton County Fire Department. Ford, who is from the South and has many family members in the region, said it was always his goal to return.

The city of Lincoln hired Ford in 2007 to fix a department with fiscal management problems and beset with controversy.

Ford’s predecessor was asked to resign in 2006 after a police investigation of the previous fire chief. The probe centered on a $2 million expenditure the former chief had authorized to buy several fire trucks from a company he had supported during the bid process. The trucks failed to meet city specifications for durability. The investigation found there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the former chief with a crime, but it did conclude he misled the mayor and city council about the purchase.

As Lincoln’s fire chief, Ford was credited with bringing stability to the department and controlling the agency’s budget without cutting staff.

Ford said he added positions during his tenure, by splitting salaries budgeted for some of the highest paid positions that had been vacant and turning single jobs into two. Ford also aggressively pursued federal grant money.

Ford also was credited with improving the city’s ambulance service by getting his department to use the city’s Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping technology. That, he said, helped cut response times.

“I didn’t walk in with a magic wand,” Ford said. “I went in there and I listened. When people had good ideas, I used them.”

Ford cited the decision to get the department to rely on GIS as an example. He credited that to a captain who knew computers and was willing to get trained in using the system.

“Most of the time is the best thing a manager can do is get their egos out of the way,” Ford said.

Ford’s tenure was not without controversy. In 2008, five male firefighters, claiming unequal treatment, filed suit against the department and Ford after he promoted a female captain to battalion chief. The suit was later dismissed.

In 2009, Ford clashed with the council and received some media criticism for seeking an additional $304,000 for his budget to pay for a minimum staffing provision that had been written into the union’s contract. The provision mandated 76 firefighters must be on duty at all times.

Council members said they were unaware that the provision would require extra funds for the department though Ford had submitted cost estimates to the mayor’s office the previous year.

The mayor’s office later acknowledged misinterpreting Ford’s overtime cost calculations and failing to provide the council with a correct cost estimate before the panel approved the contract.

A year after taking the Lincoln job, Ford applied for and became a finalist to head the Austin, Texas, fire department. The move led many to speculate he was unhappy in Lincoln. Ford denies that and said he was recruited to apply for the job, which he didn’t get.

Ford said Chamblee residents shouldn’t worry that he won’t stick around.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’m enjoying who I work for and I am enjoying where I am,” said Ford. “Right now I’m about happiness and peace.”