Baker named interim Atlanta fire chief

When the Atlanta Fire Department was going through the initial stages of its ongoing budget crunch, Joel Baker made what could be seen as an ultimate sacrifice. After scratching his way from firefighter to assistant chief, he took a voluntary demotion to section chief. A move that saved the jobs of others who might have been laid off.

“He has been upstanding and an honest man,” said AFD spokesman Bill May. “His desires have always been for the good of the department.”

Now, a little more than a year later, he has a new title — interim fire chief. The 21-year veteran of the department was officially named to the position Friday by Mayor Shirley Franklin. He replaces Kelvin Cochran, who was named U.S. Fire Administrator by President Barack Obama.

“He is the right person for the job at this time,” Franklin said of Baker. “Were I to be mayor for another six months, I would make this permanent.”

In making Baker the interim chief, Franklin was honoring a pledge she made in 2001 to not “tie the hands of a new mayor,” with last-minute, long-term appointments.

“I told him that there were no guarantees that the new mayor would keep you,” Franklin said.

Baker hardly seems worried, although he said he would be interested in the job permanently.

There are currently about 950 firefighters in Atlanta, with 230 of them assigned to the airport. Since fiscal year 2008, Atlanta Fire Rescue’s budget has dropped from $74.7 million to $64.2 million for the 12-month budget period that began July 1. In July 2008, the city was forced to close Fire Station 7 in west Atlanta. Another station, on Howell Mill Road closed last December, but re-opened in July.

Baker said right now, his top priorities are restoring the department’s insurance rating, working on strategic planning and addressing staffing issues.

“Those are my main goals,” Baker said. “Worrying about being the next chief is secondary.”