County budget cuts have forced the DeKalb Fire Rescue Department to cut 82 recruits who were already on the payroll.
On March 28, the recruits were given a two-week notice of their termination by Fire Chief Edward O’Brien, who said one group of recruits would have started working in the field in three weeks.
“Walking in there to tell 82 of them that they’re going to lose their jobs is probably going to be one of the toughest tasks I ever have as a fire chief,” said O’Brien. “It’s been a long day.”
O’Brien said the move was necessary to cut the $7 million from the department’s budget as mandated by the Board of Commissioners.
The elimination of the recruits is the biggest cut for DeKalb’s fire department, which is still evaluating its budget.
“We’ve got to calculate all the costs … of what that loss means to us in our overall budget,” O’Brien said.
In February the board of commissioners voted to cut $33.64 million from the budget proposed by DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis, which asked for a 12 percent property tax increase.
To avoid increasing taxes, the commissioner’s budget cuts 8.9 percent from most departmental budgets. The budget of the fire rescue department was cut by 29.41 percent.
During a press conference in February, Ellis said the Board of Commissioners’ “draconian cuts…will have the impact of shutting down the people’s government.”
“We’ve reached a critical point where we have to ask the question of how much we can continue to cut and still deliver quality services that our people tell us that they expect,” Ellis said.
The commissioners’ budget also called for the privatization of most emergency medical services by July 1. Beginning this summer the department will be outsourcing the medical transport of patients to a private company, O’Brien said. Currently the department supplements its 16 ambulances with 15 from Rural/Metro Corporation, an Arizona-based company that has a one-year contract with the county.
The loss of the recruits is causing the department to change its service model.
“I’ve been with the department for 25 years and as long as I’ve ever known, DeKalb County has transported patients, so it’s huge,” O’Brien said.
The department will move to four-person staffing on its engines and truck companies.
The department will run “advance life support engines so we will still respond with paramedics first out of the stations,” O’Brien said. The daily complement of fire rescue personnel will remain at 215 for the county and the change in service will not delay response times.
O’Brien said the recruits are being given the opportunity to apply for some open positions with the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. Representatives from Atlanta met with the recruits on March 28.
The elimination of the recruits is the biggest cut for DeKalb’s fire department which is still evaluating its budget.
Commissioner Lee May, who heads the county’s finance committee, said the new service model for fire rescue is in response to a request for all county department heads to present an operational plan to addresses the budget cuts.
“You call it cuts; I call it changes in the service model,” May said. “We’re still providing the service. We’re just doing it differently.”
Many jurisdictions in Georgia and around the country are outsourcing medical transport services, May said.
“This is not something new,” May said.
May commended O’Brien for being proactive in contacting the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department about the county’s recruits.
It would be a financial benefit for Atlanta to hire trained recruits, May said. DeKalb spends approximately $34,000 to train a new recruit.