Public opinion will carry unusual weight in his decision on a new fire chief, Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May acknowledges.
He plans to pick between two finalists by year’s end. The selection carries extra pressure in DeKalb as the county beset by scandal tries to boost its image.
“I don’t want to target one over the other,” May said, after a public forum introducing both hopefuls to the community. “But I do want residents to have the opportunity to know who both candidates are so I can be transparent and fair in my selection.”
The two finalists have sharply different resumes. Teresa Everett’s career has been marked by short stints in several fire departments and more than a decade working in various other jobs. Darnell Fullum has worked in the Fulton County Fire Department for 28 years, and his only other job was soldier in the U.S. Army.
Everett has been fire chief in Gary, Ind., for a year. Fullum has served as Fulton’s deputy chief since 2008.
Some firefighters have expressed worry about Everett’s career trajectory, noting that she is enmeshed in a public dispute with her department’s firefighters over issues such as docked pay.
But resident reaction at the recent public meeting – where both Everett and Fullum answered pre-approved questions about policy and politics – shows the challenge facing May.
“I was very impressed with both of them,” said George Olive, a retired computer programmer from Northlake and ham radio operator who volunteers during emergencies. “And I like that she said volunteers are important. I wanted to hear that.”
Concern has come from some quarters, including county commissioners, about Everett’s background and lack of leadership experience at a large department.
The job opening, created when Chief Eddie O’Brien retired in November, comes after a year of negative headlines in DeKalb.
The county’s CEO, Burrell Ellis, was suspended this summer after being indicted on political corruption charges. The county’s former school superintendent just accepted a plea deal in the racketeering conviction of the district’s former chief operating officer and her husband.
With that backdrop, both Everett and Fullum won over some residents with an emphasis on community engagement.
Fullum pledged to invite people to tour fire stations and hold education events so they could understand the various services the department provides.
For instance, nearly 90 percent of about 100,000 calls the department handles each year are for accidents or medical emergencies.
“I think it’s a mistake if the first time someone sees a firefighter is when the lights and sirens are coming down their driveway,” Fullum said. “We need to be customer-focused.”
Everett promised similar events, adding she would also want a staff review of the permit licenses the department handles. If possible, she wants to streamline those permits by including them with other paperwork, such as building inspections.
“I really believe the citizens enjoy coming in and interacting with the people who serve their areas,” Everett said.
May said he will name his choice by year’s end, though he is working limited days during the holidays.
Whoever is selected will not take over the $60 million department, with 645 firefighters, until sometime next year.