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City budget leaves senior firefighters in a bind

Most experienced public safety personnel earning less than they deserve

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The fire service is not a job, it is a career. It is a field that takes nearly a year of specialized training before the first true workday begins.

That first day, however, is only the beginning. It's the start of a journey that requires thousands of hours of in-depth knowledge and honing of one's instincts.

In an urban area like Atlanta, the first five years of a firefighter's career are spent watching, learning, and listening to the senior firefighters. They know how to control their emotions and focus during an emergency. They know their equipment and how to use it. They are the bedrock of the fire department. And they're not nearly compensated at the level they should be.

On May 17, Mayor Kasim Reed proposed that the city's budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July, would include cash to provide most city employees a pay raise starting next year. Those who make less than $60,000, as well as police officers and firefighters, would see their paychecks increase by 1 percent. The proposed city budget will fully fund the fire stations, but it won't compensate the senior firefighters who are key to their operation. That's unfair to firefighters and that's bad news for Atlanta.

Atlanta firefighters handle complex fire scenarios. Think blazes in historic high-rise apartments without sprinklers and deep transit tunnels. Or huge warehouses packed full of various products. Maybe tiny dilapidated shotgun houses built too close to walk between. Or giant commercial complexes packed full with people in a sprawling maze. Or a hidden cardboard hut buried beneath that complex, but which contains a life all the same. They must be ready and able to handle it all.

Senior firefighters are a vital part of combating those fires. They can read a blaze as it rapidly extends through a house, knowing where it will go and how to defeat it. When citizens and new firefighters are captivated by the reality of the tragedy at hand, these veterans are focused on the critical factors of life-saving care and actions.

These veterans are also the expert drivers who wheel 80-thousand pounds of steel down narrow streets with ease. They find a way to squeeze their trucks into position so that ladders may reach windows and hoses can be stretched to awkwardly placed hydrants and distant fire simultaneously.

They know every aspect of every tool and take pride in always being constantly prepared. These capable firefighters could grab — or clean — each tool with their eyes closed.

These are not chiefs sitting behind a desk writing policy and making media appearances. They are the sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who function as the crew leaders, guiding and directing their team with seemingly choreographed precision to right the wrong that called them there. They are capable of rapidly making quick decisions, focusing on the key dangerous elements to avoid, and finding opportunities to save lives.

The recent years of economic hardships across the country have changed the model for governments. Cutting costs has replaced professional expertise.

Atlanta's budget cuts and economic contraction came hard and fast. Two fire stations were closed while others shut down for days at a time.

Private industry decreased the production of goods and services. But the volume of emergency calls continued to rise. "Doing more with less" became the unofficial motto, but it was said by the firefighters with a tinge of pride. Overcoming a bleak outlook in a dire situation was their natural calling.

To compound the problem, nearly one-third of Atlanta firefighters reached the end of their career some 30 years after a mass hiring in the early 1980s. These members left large gaps in many high-ranking positions that were filled nearly simultaneously by the next generation, pulling many highly skilled firefighters out of the trucks and into an office.

The pool of senior firefighters was drying up as many became frustrated at the increased workload and lack of support. Some found newly formed cities offering higher pay while others took their intelligence and expertise to other fields.

As the economy improves, the city has boasted ambitious new plans and projects. The fire department has also started to heal, replacing its aging and neglected fleet of fire trucks and crumbling stations. New firefighters have joined the ranks.

Yet the lack of experts and the risk of losing more is still a growing problem. Years ago the city abandoned its structure for increasing employees' pay on an annual basis, opting instead for an optional increase as the budget allowed.

This has created a system that fails to recognize the value of the seasoned professional. Many of the experienced firefighters in Atlanta have dedicated 10 to 15 years of their lives mastering the facets of the fire service only to be compensated at the level of a two-year employee.

These seasoned veterans who risk their lives daily are in need of a hero. They need someone to make a difficult decision and commitment for the safety of the citizens. The mayor can make that call.

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