Atlanta fire chief: Lack of training facilities hinders recruitment, readiness

Current facilities not adequate to train recruits and firefighters

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Roderick Smith is embarrassed over the current training facilities available for firefighters and recruits.

“It is absolutely embarrassing for us to hire members to come in and say, ‘You are going to work for the biggest, you are going to work for the best,’ and bring them to somewhere like (these buildings),” Smith said outside a condemned training facility on Monday.

Smith said the city needs a public safety training center in order to be able to prepare first responders.

“We have not been able to train our members to the level they need to train to safely operate,” Smith said. “The Atlanta Fire Rescue department constantly gets overlooked when it comes to training and training centers.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Smith said most of the publicity around the planned training center has regarded police training; opponents deride the $90 million facility as “Cop City.” More than 100 people spoke against the project during last week’s city council meeting.

Atlanta Fire on Monday offered a look at training facilities that have been condemned and can no longer be used, including a former elementary school on Ashwood Avenue, built in the 1950s and used for training from the 1990s until recently. The building is run down, with trash everywhere and ceiling tiles falling off throughout the building. Smith said recruits complained about respiratory issues in 2021.

“We sent them to the doctor and the doctor said simply, ‘Do not enter the building again’,” Smith said.

Another condemned training facility on Claire Drive, built in the 1960s, awaits demolition. The department currently has nowhere for firefighters to learn to drive emergency vehicles and must hold training in surrounding counties, Smith said.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The proposed new facility, Smith said, will include state-of-the-art classrooms, a training tower, an area where new recruits and firefighters will learn to drive emergency vehicles and an area for firefighters and police officers to train together.

“I think a lot of people take it for granted,” Smith said. “At this point, we don’t have anything.”

The department currently has more than 250 vacancies and without proper training facilities, Smith said it’s hard to be able to recruit and properly train those recruits. The department tries to train about 100 to 120 recruits at a time, with training lasting between 14 to 15 months.

“We are losing recruits, as well as we are losing members, that we refer to as incumbent members because they are leaving and going to other departments,” Smith said. “We are living in a space where we are struggling to train enough members to fill our vacancies, as well as, continue the training for our incumbent members.”

The James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.