By Michael Jacobs
Buckhead residents can expect to see blackouts and brownouts in their fire service under the city of Atlanta’s latest budget cuts.
“We’re doing everything that we can to maximize what we can do for you,” Battalion Chief James Peal said. “Nobody likes to see equipment close down. Nobody likes to see staffing down.”
Brownouts, in which a piece of equipment such as a fire engine or truck is taken out of service temporarily for lack of manpower, began after the last round of city budget cuts. They can be as brief as 30 minutes or as long as a day, Peal told Neighborhood Planning Unit A (NPU-A) the night of Dec. 2, after the city announced 222 layoffs that day. Another battalion chief spoke at NPU-B that same night and a NPU-C was visited the following night at its meeting.
Peal said only four or five brownouts of a significant length occurred before this month.
But Peal said brownouts will become much more frequent under the latest budget cuts, which mandate a 10 percent salary cut for all employees paid out of the general fund. The Fire Department will institute furloughs to cut employee pay, and fewer firefighters on duty at any given time will make it unsafe to operate certain equipment at times.
One Buckhead station, No. 26, is on the brownout list. Engine 26 and Truck 26 are among five vehicles subject to being shut down temporarily. An engine primarily pumps water and carries hoses, while a truck carries ladders and other equipment.
Peal emphasized that the Fire Department still will send the same types and numbers of vehicles to a fire, but it will take longer for engines to arrive if the closest equipment is going through a brownout.
“I have to assure you that the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is going to continue to provide the highest level of service that we can within the resources we’re allocated. It’s imperative that you realize that,” Peal said. “Firemen are still out there. We’re still answering calls. We’re still going in burning buildings. We’re still saving lives and property. What we’ve got to do that with is going to be greatly reduced with the furloughs.”
Stations 8, 21 and 27 will help cover whenever Station 26 has a brownout, he said.
“Your Fire Department in Atlanta is made up of some very dedicated and well-qualified individuals, and I’m going to borrow from State Farm for just a minute: Like a good neighbor, when you call, we haul. We’re coming.”
The bigger change under the furloughs is the start of blackouts — equipment being removed from service for the rest of the fiscal year, which runs through June 30.
As of Christmas Day, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department will shut down two pieces of equipment: Truck 12, which is housed near Little Five Points, and Engine 23, which serves Buckhead from the station at 1545 Howell Mill Road. The engine is the only equipment at Station 23, so the entire station will be closed for at least the next six months.
While Peal offered assurances that the Fire Department will do the best it can with the resources available, he also made clear the personal consequences for firefighters. In addition to losing 10 percent of their salaries through furloughs, they previously lost overtime pay of $3,000 to $6,000 each when the department forced them to take one unpaid day of leave every three months. Many firefighters were demoted. And the department now has only three firefighters per engine now instead of four, which Peal said reduces strategic and tactical flexibility on the scene of a fire.
The lower staffing level meets national standards, but Peal said that just as most people buy more than the mandated minimum liability insurance on their cars, the minimum isn’t what you want at a fire.
“Something could happen, and when something happens, you want to be covered to the highest possible way that you can,” he said.
Unlike the Fire Department, the Police Department doesn’t expect its furloughs to affect its public service, said Lt. Tony Crawford, the new evening watch supervisor in Zone 2, which covers Buckhead.
Crawford said the police will cope with the furloughs by changing officers’ off-days.
“We’re short, but we have enough to get the cars out,” he said. “We can always use more officers, but we’ll have enough out on the street so you shouldn’t see delays.”
Peal let the NPU members know that any complaints about the situation should be directed toward elected officials, not firefighters or police. “As this budget stuff goes on, I don’t have to tell y’all who to call. Y’all know who to call to let your voice be heard.”