The firefighters in Fulton County Fire Station #2 eat most of their meals together, Wayne Hines said. But dinner Friday was to be more than a meal — it was a feast. Hines bought lobster tails, ribeye steak, twice-baked potato salad and yeast rolls.
The occasion? The end of the Fulton County Fire Department.
The decals have been changed on the fire trucks, and by Friday, the 160 employees providing fire service in the southern part of Fulton County as part of the first and third battalions all had their new job offers.
Monday, the Fulton County fire department ceased to be. Welcome, instead, the firefighters from the city of South Fulton.
The Fulton County Fire Department has been shrinking for more than a decade, since Sandy Springs voters decided to make a new city and took over fire service from Fulton County in 2006. From that point forward, each of the new cities that formed in Fulton County took over fire service, too, paring down the department’s staff and its geography.
South Fulton, a new city of about 100,000 people that formed in May, was (with a small exception — we’ll get to later) the last unincorporated part of the county, and the last area Fulton fire was serving. The city has been taking on new services for the past several months — business licenses, code enforcement officers, the planning department — but the fire department is the largest, and the most visible. By November, the city will also bring over Fulton County police officers, parks workers and public works employees to the city.
Hines, president of the Fulton County Professional Firefighters union, said he knows there will be snags in the transition. But so far, he said Thursday, the problems have all been small ones: gear that still says Fulton County instead of South Fulton, for example.
“It’s just minor problems like that that will be solved over a period of time,” Hines said. “We’re still going to cover the same territory.”
That, for a while, was a matter of debate. While the unincorporated parts of Fulton County were cobbled together to form the new city, there’s one area — a 7.5-mile stretch along Fulton Industrial Boulevard — that under state law, can’t join any city. Fulton County has planning, code enforcement and other staff that are dedicated to that area, and considered keeping a fire department to provide services there as well. Eventually, though, leaders decided it didn’t make sense.
Todd Long, Fulton County’s chief operating officer, said the fire stations overlap coverage areas with county and city territory, and it was too much to unwind. Instead, the county will pay the city $3.7 million a year to fight fires on Fulton Industrial.
“It made it complicated,” Long said. “We felt like those complications would be hard to overcome.”
It is the first time since 1978 that Fulton County has not had its own fire department.
The agreement was signed just days before the transition, after considerable back-and-forth regarding both whether Fulton County should keep a portion of the department, and the price to fund the service once leaders had decided not to.
“It is cutting it close,” Long said before the transition. “We’re scrambling on our end.”
Helen Zenobia Willis, a member of city council, said she is glad the city will have more control over the services residents there had been paying for for years, but the county provided.
“It’s going to be an exciting time, to finally see the city of South Fulton name on the side of a firetruck,” she said. “It will finally give credence to the fact that these are our tax dollars at work. This is why we fought for cityhood.”
The fire chief, Larry Few, is still fire chief, Willis said, and she doesn’t expect major changes in the way the department operates. What will change, she said, is the city’s commitment to maintaining fire stations, which in some cases are in disrepair.
The city paid $5,000 apiece for 10 fire stations, Long said, and $1 apiece for everything from refrigerators to firetrucks to uniforms. One fire station has been due to be rebuilt for a number of years, Willis said; South Fulton will make it a priority.
Few, the fire chief, said it had been a “great run” for the department. And people who receive fire service, he said, won’t notice “any change whatsoever.”
“It’s just changing the dates we get paid on, and the stickers on the fire truck,” Hines said.
Long said that’s best for residents and business owners alike. If South Fulton, and the transition of the fire department, are a success, it will help the whole area stabilize.
“I want it to be as smooth as possible,” Long said. “It’s a little nostalgic; it’s sad. We’ve been providing fire service for a long, long time. We felt like it was the best business decision.”
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