Why are thieves targeting the cars of metro Atlanta firefighters?

Gwinnett County Fire Station No. 23.

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Gwinnett County Fire Station No. 23.

The Facebook post, viewed tens of thousands of times, burned with frustration, confusion and hurt.

It was written by Marilee Sheppard, the wife of a Gwinnett County firefighter — a woman that, in this instance, was also the wife of a victim.

“Last night, when you were a selfish coward and broke into my husband’s vehicle and the vehicles of the men he calls his brothers,” the post started, “they weren't inside sleeping warm in their beds.”

“You see,” it went on, “after saving someone who had been shot, and another having chest pain, they worked until daylight putting out a fire in the subfreezing temperatures trying to save someone's home.”

Sheppard's husband was one of roughly two dozen on-duty Gwinnett County firefighters who had their cars broken into as Saturday night bled into Sunday morning. The damage was done at four different stations (and one former station), the pilfered items ranging from firearms to more personal effects.

It was the second firehouse crime spree in Gwinnett in less than a week — and the latest troubling chapter in what appears to be a growing trend across metro Atlanta.

“It seems to be happening more frequently here recently, in the past year or two,” Dwayne Jamison, president of the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs, said this week.

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The unidentified thief or thieves that struck over the weekend hit one fire station in Norcross, one in Duluth and two in Lawrenceville, including a brand new one near Georgia Gwinnett College. They broke windows and stole at least two guns.

A county vehicle parked at the now-former Fire Station 10 on Russel Road — which firefighters left in October for new digs further down Ga. 20 — was also broken into.

All of that happened on one night.

Less than a week earlier, on Jan. 2, cars outside two more Gwinnett fire stations — one in Lawrenceville and another in Suwanee — were hit. A station in Forsyth County was targeted the same night, with three handguns reported stolen.

In November, thieves struck outside firehouses in DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta.

Fire and law enforcement officials called the growing trend “insulting,” “disturbing” and “horrible.” And while it’s hard to pinpoint a concrete motive at this point, many believe fire stations are being targeted specifically for firearms.

“A lot of the firefighters are gun enthusiasts,” Jamison said. And while Georgia law now allow firearms in many government buildings, most agencies still prohibit fire personnel from taking  their weapons inside firehouses.

“That kind of makes them a target, I guess,” Jamison said.

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Police say the cars were broken into while firefighters were out fighting fires.

Regardless of what’s driving the crime trend, authorities are left trying to figure out a way to halt it.

Gwinnett fire Capt. Tommy Rutledge declined to provide specifics about current protocols at his department’s stations, but said they’re reviewing security measures and considering making changes. Gwinnett police are also “performing extra patrols” to try and thwart future break-ins, Rutledge said.

In Forsyth, fire Division Chief Jason Shivers said the recent break-ins have forced his department to identify stations “that have somewhat of a weakness in security” and try to address the issues.

But beefed up security is also a thin line to walk for fire stations, which are traditionally considered safe spaces open to the community.

“We’re not gonna be intimidated into being scared to be available to the public,” Shivers said.

Sheppard, whose husband’s car was targeted at a Gwinnett fire station, wrote in her viral Facebook post that she’s used to worrying about her spouse running into burning buildings, or dodging passing cars while helping someone on the side of the road.

But she never thought she’d have to concern herself with a someone rifling through his car, throwing his Christmas gift on the ground, jostling the car seat of his not-quite-1-year-old son or stealing the gun she’d given him one their first anniversary.

“It just makes you say, ‘Why?’” Sheppard told The AJC on Tuesday morning. “Like, why them?”

Anyone with information in the Gwinnett County firehouse break-ins is asked to contact Gwinnett police at 770-513-5300. Tipsters can also remain anonymous — and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000 — by visiting CrimeStoppersAtlanta.org, calling 404-577-8477 or texting information to 274637.