Atlanta fire fleet audited as department navigates equipment issues

The review comes as the department celebrates a number of new investments
The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is grappling with a pervasive equipment shortage driven by out-of-date vehicles and slow purchasing timelines. The City Auditor's Office is conducting an audit of fleet maintenance in an effort to better mitigate the issue going forward.

Credit: Riley Bunch/

Credit: Riley Bunch/

The Atlanta Fire Rescue Department is grappling with a pervasive equipment shortage driven by out-of-date vehicles and slow purchasing timelines. The City Auditor's Office is conducting an audit of fleet maintenance in an effort to better mitigate the issue going forward.

The city is in the process of auditing the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department’s vehicle fleet as maintenance problems and an ordering backlog has intensified equipment issues that have been brewing for years.

City Council members began raising red flags last fall about the fluctuating numbers of fire trucks and ladders that were out of commission at various times across the city. The problem is so extensive that anywhere from 15 to 20 trucks at a time could be off of streets for repairs.

A memo from the City Auditor’s Office sent to Mayor Andre Dickens and council members in December said that a review of fire fleet maintenance is underway and expected to be completed by late April.

“Our risk assessment flagged public safety and deferred maintenance as areas of concern,” the City of Atlanta Audit Committee said. “(AFRD) provides fire mitigation, rescue services, and emergency medical services to the city but has experienced a shortage of fire vehicles due to maintenance issues and supply chain backlog.”

“Because of the lack of working fire apparatus, there is an increased liability to the city regarding the safety of fire department staff and the public,” Danielle Hampton, chair of the committee wrote to officials.

The review comes on the heels of the department celebrating the completion of two projects that have been in the works for years: a new EMS hub and fire station located in southwest Atlanta — an area of the city that is plagued with a high volume of EMS calls.

Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Rod Smith speaks at the opening of southwest Atlanta's new 9-1-1 hub on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. The "mirco-station" will respond to medical emergencies in hopes of freeing up vehicles for other types of calls. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

The department responded to more than 15,000 calls related to fires in 2023 alone, and nearly 50,000 medical emergency calls, according to data from the department.

Another document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compares the city’s fleet replacement plan to other departments across the country.

Before equipment investments made recently by City Council, Atlanta had only ordered 12 new pieces of fire equipment since 2017 and none within the last 5 years. That’s compared to places like Nashville, where officials made a $15 million investment over the past few years to order 32 new engines and ladders.

The document says Atlanta’s fleet replacement should be triple the current rate.

Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Rod Smith said that city leaders have gone all in to strengthen the fire fleet.

“The mayor has been very supportive in addressing our fleet needs, to the point of we’ve had $20 million of capital purchases and we have well over 20 pieces of equipment that have been ordered and we are waiting for it to arrive,” he said at an event earlier this month.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens joins Fire Chief Rod Smith and southwest Atlanta community leaders as they celebrate the  opening of a new fire station at Princeton Lakes on Feb. 9, 2024.

Credit: Riley Bunch/

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Credit: Riley Bunch/

‘A big turning point’

Not long ago, Dickens and other city leaders gathered in southwest Atlanta to celebrate big milestones for the fire department.

The community gathered on Campbellton Road on a Thursday in front of a new, $4 million “micro-station,” built specifically to respond to medical emergencies, in hopes of freeing stations and vehicles to respond to other types of calls.

As Dickens declared the occasion “a big turning point” in the city’s approach to managing fire department resources, neighborhood residents snapped photos of their children in front of parked fire trucks.

The next day, the same crowd of elected leaders and community advocates gathered again for the grand opening of Fire Station 36 in Princeton Lakes. The $8 million facility replaces Fire Station 31 which was shuttered last year.

At least three fire stations at the time were closed due to persuasive equipment issues and staffing shortages.

“We’re a growing population over here in southwest Atlanta and the service need is just so high,” said Reginald Rushin, chair of NPU-P. “And this means so much more with the new EMS down the street.”

Members of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department gather outside of Fire Station 36 on Feb. 9, 2024. The new station will replace the old facility just down the road that was shuttered due to equipment issues.

Credit: Riley Bunch/

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Credit: Riley Bunch/

One document obtained by the AJC from Invest Atlanta note that the high number of out-of-service equipment included critical and specialized vehicles like engines and ladder trucks last year.

“There have been multiple documented structure fires recently where the nearest engine or truck was out of service, responding trucks had non-functioning ladders or nozzles, or trucks had been reassigned to other sectors or battalions within the City due to out-of-service equipment,” the report says.

The city isn’t only racing to avoid potential liability, but also to mitigate a potential insurance rate increase for property owners.

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, residents are at risk of insurance rates spiking.

Members of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department join in an opening prayer at the celebration of the city's new fire station in southwest Atlanta on Feb. 9, 2024.

Credit: Riley Bunch/

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Credit: Riley Bunch/

Long-term solutions for rundown equipment

At the state level, Georgia lawmakers have leaned in to the electric vehicle industry. Just this month, Kia executives gathered at the State Capitol to debut the first electric vehicle ever built in Georgia at the company’s West Point factory.

Hyundai and Rivian, too, are ramping up plans to produce mass EVs across the state.

Fire department leaders are eyeing the up-and-coming trend, too, as a potential long-term solution for the city’s vehicle woes. The Atlanta Fire Foundation began raising funds in December to purchase an electric fire engine — which will be the first of its kind on the East Coast.

The $3 million fundraising campaign for EV fire trucks and SUVs was planned as part of the city’s clean energy initiatives. Notable donors include Norfolk Southern, Delta and Georgia Power.

Chris Sizemore, board chair of the Atlanta Fire Foundation, said the engine should be in Atlanta by May — much faster than the 12- to 18-month timeline on new standard engines ordered by the city’s fire department.

“We’re going to get this engine here and we’ll be able to see what it looks like for the city of Atlanta and what it looks like long-term,” he said. “Do we have more of an EV fleet or a mix of fleets?”

Sizemore says the foundation sees it as one part of the fix to equipment problems, along with additional funds from city council.

“We have the ability to go out and raise these funds and to help bring this in to see if it’s a long-term solution for us,” he said.

Smith said the electric vehicle will be stationed on the north side.

“The city is striving to go green,” the fire chief said outside the new EMS station in southwest Atlanta.

Atlanta’s firefighters also want a chance to weigh in on the design of future fire projects. Atlanta City Council is considering a resolution to create a Fire Station Design Committee that includes local members at the rank of Captain or below.

“The current fire stations within the City have some physical inadequacies such as not having proper decontamination rooms, open shared dormitory rooms that lack privacy, lack of multiple restrooms per fire station, and absence of areas to conduct training,” the resolution says of the city’s current facilities.