The north Fulton city plans to start by hiring more fire captains this year

Any given hour for a Roswell firefighter can range from a harrowing emergency to a local citizen coming into the firehouse for help to start their car.

In June, Roswell’s firefighters rescued a fawn caught in a neighborhood storm drain. Last summer, firefighters were faced with a more challenging rescue when they saved an elderly woman trapped in a different storm drain.

In that more delicate case, the Sandy Springs Fire Department assisted in rescuing the woman. And even when Roswell emergency workers tackle the job without support, most are part-timers who have full-time jobs in other agencies, officials say.

A study by the Center for Public Safety Management in Washington D.C. found the fire department is often understaffed on shifts. Roswell commissioned the $62,000 study that was presented to City Council during a June 13 work session.

Over the next five years, Roswell plans to transition its fire department to full-time workers and will pay an estimated $11.65 million in annual salaries and related costs when the changeover is complete. Officials say the move will improve resident safety and response times.

That amount is $5.3 million more than Roswell is currently paying for its part-time staff.

Currently, Roswell’s fire department operates with approximately 200 part-time workers and 21 full-time employees that are senior staff, battalion chiefs, and support personnel. The city budgeted $6.35 million in department salaries last fiscal year.

The city’s plan is to have a full-time staff of 135 in the department, Fire Chief Joe Pennino said recently via email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A June presentation to City Council by Joe Pozzo, senior manager for fire and EMS at the Center for Public Safety Management, showed that in 2021 Roswell’s fire department wasn’t adequately staffed for more than 60% of its emergency calls. In many cases, emergency vehicles including ladder trucks and others with special apparatus were not utilized because there weren’t enough people to operate them.

Pozzo’s presentation showed the fire department responded to 7,100 EMS calls in 2021 and 2,600 fire-related calls. On those alarms, Roswell fire and EMS spent 180 seconds to 240 seconds to get in their vehicles and depart which is below National Fire Protection Agency standards, Pozzo said. Firefighters should be en route within 80 seconds and EMS within 60 seconds of an alarm, he said.

Mayor Kurt Wilson, while praising first responders, has described the department’s current model of operations as a public safety problem for the city’s nearly 94,000 residents. Roswell was a city of less than 1,600 residents when the fire department opened in 1937, according to the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

“While the hybrid model served Roswell well as we were growing from a small to a mid-sized town, the ... report clearly shows we have reached a population where a full-time fire department is ... necessary to maintain the high level of service our first responders have traditionally provided,” Councilwoman Christine Hall said in a recent text message to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

According to Roswell, most part-time firefighters work in full-time departments in nearby cities and report to Roswell after working a shift elsewhere. They can often have scheduling problems or be fatigued when reporting for the Roswell shift, Pozzo reported to City Council.

The city plans to hire 21 full-time captains in the next 12 months at a cost of $1.7 million annually, the director of finance said. Partial funding in the amount of $484,885 was approved for the hires during a June 13 council meeting. A 30-day application period for the new captain positions begins Friday. More information on the positions is available on the city website at www.roswellgov.com/jobs.

To further improve fire department operations, Roswell wants to move some fire stations and replace others. Fire Station No. 22 on Crabapple Road and Fire Station No. 23 on Jones Road were built in the 1970s and don’t have enough room for firefighters, Pennino said.

Station No. 23 will be replaced at its current location at an estimated $4.5 million. Station No. 22 will be relocated to a larger parcel and the cost will depend on the price of the land, Pennino added.

Pozzo suggests more stations be relocated, replaced or constructed to help bring alarm response times in line with National Fire Protection Agency standards.