'Our firefighters can’t keep begging for basics': Atlanta FFs struggle with apparatus shortage
Call volume has increased as Atlanta firefighters are forced to deal with equipment, staffing shortages
By Riley Bunch
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Bill Brockman remembers clearly the headline-making rescue of a crane operator who, in 1999, was stuck 200 feet above the ground at the old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill as the building was engulfed in flames.
The former battalion chief for the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department said that while the helicopter rescue caught national attention, on that day he was worried about something potentially much deadlier.
“The larger problem was the fire was out of control in Cabbagetown, which is all old wood-frame houses very close together,” he said. “It was such a windy day that the fire department of 1999 — which was fully staffed and equipped — couldn’t handle it and had to call for a lot of help from surrounding areas.”
“But I’m not sure they could do that now,” he said. “I’m not sure they could hold it long enough for DeKalb, Decatur or Cobb to come.”
Brockman’s source of concern is a pervasive equipment shortage plaguing Atlanta’s firefighters — a problem so severe that stations have had to close temporarily due to a lack of ladder trucks and other vehicles.
In recent months, city officials have struggled with fluctuating news: one day the city could be down two engines or ladder trucks, while other days upwards of 20 are out of commission.
“On your normal day, you’re fine,” Brockman said of the shortage. “But every day isn’t normal.”
Atlanta City Council members have been rushing to find a solution to the problem which, they say, has been brewing for decades. At the same time the department, like many across the country, struggles to recruit and retain firefighters.
The fire department has been quiet about the issue. Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department officials did not respond to a request for an interview.
Council members say they were taken aback by news shared by Fire Chief Rod Smith at a committee meeting in October that three stations were currently closed.
“The personnel are coming to the call, " Smith told council members. “It’s just you don’t have the ladder trucks there.”
Many of Atlanta’s frontline trucks have been in service for more than two decades while the recommended lifespan is eight to ten years. On top of the aged equipment, the city is currently operating with no reserve fleets.
“We can’t continue to say and pretend and mask problems that now being down 10, 15, 20 fire apparatus isn’t impacting response times for people’s safety,” said Dustin Hillis, chairman of the public safety committee. “That’s absurd.”
Less trucks, more calls
While the department faces staffing issues and equipment shortages, calls for service have increased significantly.
Nate Bailey, president of Atlanta Professional Firefighters, took to the podium in the council chamber at City Hall to read staggering statistics about the increase in calls across stations from 2005 to 2019.
Some of the city’s fire engines — which are equipped with water hoses — saw more than a 200% increase in calls for service within the 14-year period. Most of the city’s ladder trucks are also answering well over 100% more calls.
The engine at Fire Station 5 on Campbellton Road on the southwest side of the city jumped from 848 calls in 2005 to just under 3,000 calls in 2019, according to the firefighters association. And Fire Station 3′s engine near Brookhaven shot up from 753 calls to more than 2,300. The city’s ladder trucks have seen similar increases in use.
“If we doubled or tripled the calls on these apparatus,” Bailey said, “we’ve also doubled or tripled the calls on the backs of our firefighters because we have the same number of sworn as we did in ‘05 as we do now.”
The disparities in equipment across stations puts the city in a poor position to host major events like the upcoming 2026 World Cup games, Bailey said.
Hillis spearheaded recently passed legislation to try to front-load equipment orders for the department and fully replenish the fleet within the next five years.
During the Nov. 6 council meeting, the body passed legislation to fund the $18 million purchase of one ladder truck, eight fire engines, one utility truck, two rescue boats, 45 defibrillators and breathing devices. The council also passed a proposal requesting Invest Atlanta approve $5 million for additional fire equipment at three stations within the city’s tax allocation districts.
But even if the city is able to dedicate the funds, he says, it’s a waiting game to get orders from manufacturers facing supply chain backlogs.
“These aren’t hitting the ground in Atlanta, very absolute best case scenario, for 18 months but more than likely 24 to 36 months,” he said. “We’ll get moved up in the queue if we speak to the vendors, let them know how dire the situation is and put in larger orders — (then) we’ll get prioritized, that’s my understanding.”
Hillis said it’s not just fire engines and ladder trucks that are creating problems. Many of the city’s stations are rundown — some even with boarded up windows — and defibrillators are broken or missing from vehicles.
“Props to our firefighters because they’ll run or ride a bicycle — whatever they have to do to get to a scene to provide someone medical attention or to fight a fire,” Hillis said. “But we have to support our firefighters to make sure that they have the equipment that they need to provide for our citizens and visitors in the city.”
A letter from the Atlanta Professional Firefighters sent to City Council members on Oct. 24 warned of the department’s limited capabilities when, at that point, eight (of 30) stations across the city were “not in operation.”
“It is unfair to the mayor, the administration, the council members, our firefighters, and more importantly, our citizens to not properly prepare, forecast, and budget for essential equipment,” the letter says. “There has never, in modern history, been a fire department fleet as bad as our current fleet. Our firefighters can’t keep begging for basics.
“Our citizens will not accept two firefighters arriving in a pick-up truck with no water, if their loved one is trapped in a burning home.”
'Seconds are critical'
In late September, an apartment complex under construction on Northwest Drive NW in Atlanta’s Monroe Heights neighborhood burst into flames. The size of the fire usually would require six engines and six ladder trucks.
“This fire, that should have had six ladder trucks and it had two ladder trucks, only one that was fully functional,” said Hillis, who represents the area. “Thankfully no one died because it was a construction project. But it’s also an affordable housing project and that’s put them back a year to two years to rebuild it.”
Brockman also lives in the same area as the fire and said he never saw equipment issues to this extent in the 29 years he worked at the department. But the stakes are high with both structure fire and medical emergency calls where “seconds are critical,” he said.
“If the engine is not in your neighborhood and you’re in cardiac arrest it could mean the difference between being saved and not being saved,” he said. “And in a fire it could be the difference between one apartment or the entire building is gone.”
Atlantans are also at risk of their home insurance rates climbing if the city’s fire department continues to struggle. Many companies use a public protection classification rating from the New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office to help determine how much homeowners should pay.
The ISO inspects everything from the number of firefighters a government has to the location of its fire hydrants. If the office’s upcoming report drops Atlanta’s rating on a scale of 10 with 1 being the best, resident are at risk of insurance rates spiking. The last report issued in 2019 gave the city a rating of 1.
“We have large sections of our city that are currently well beyond the required 1.5 miles from the closest fire engine and most certainly 2.5 miles from the closest ladder company,” the letter from the fire association to council members said.
Hillis told the AJC that the City Auditor’s Office is also starting its own audit of the fire department’s equipment and vehicle maintenance.