DeKalb County Interim CEO Lee May hosted a forum Dec. 10 with the two final candidates for fire chief. The search for a new fire chief began after Chief Eddie O’Brien retired in October.
May said the county received approximately 110 applicants, which were organized into three groups of candidates: those with minimum qualifications, those who were well qualified and highly qualified. From the six highly qualified candidates a panel chose finalists Teresa Everett and Darnell Fullum, Everett is currently fire chief of Gary, Indiana, and Fullum is fire chief of Fulton County Fire Rescue.
The Q&A that follows has been edited by The Champion for clarity and content.
As chief of the department, what procedures would you institute to make the department more diverse from firefighter one through deputy chief?
I believe it starts with recruitment and I think that’s a yearlong process. I think you’re looking for the best and you do that by demonstrating [and] branding your department as being open to anybody who would want to come.
As individuals move through the ranks, a progression plan that shows them how they get from one step to the other [needs to be in place]…It’s about showing them that they have an opportunity to move from each rank and each level and you have a promotional process that’s transparent.
There has to be inclusion; just because the department or any other area is diverse does not mean the thought process or the input from everybody is actually included.
The first thing I would look at would be analyzing the department and seeing what it takes to go from one rank to the other and, again, focusing on recruitment. The recruitment process has to be comprehensive and reflect the available workforce in your particular community. Typically here, you’re going to look at whether to start the recruitment process from high school or look at outside entities and what diversity actually means [within] this department—Are we talking skill sets, are we talking culture, are we talking race or are we talking gender?—first we have to define what diversity actually means.
As for the actual department, you can only have diversity within the ranks depending on what your promotional process is. If your promotional process is internally based on testing there’s not a whole lot you can do without adding some other dimensions. So your promotional process must be comprehensive and it must be multidimensional.
There are not many African-American females above the rank of captain. How do you plan to address racial and gender diversity within the department?
Those above the rank of captain, as I understand it here, can be appointed positions so you have other opportunities to do other types of recruitment either internally or externally if it’s a tested position.
The first thing I look at when [I] talk about increasing any gender or ethnicity is to make sure that the qualifications are clearly communicated—you want to bring in a person that has a reasonable opportunity to succeed. I would look at doing a general recruitment that does not have any barriers but does not place emphasis on any one gender.
It’s not just above the rank of captain—if you’re short females, it starts at the bottom. It goes back to your basic recruitment analysis.
I do believe it starts with a thorough review of the promotional process from the beginning all the way to deputy chief. That’s one of the things I would be doing in the first 30 days. I need to know how we’ve been promoting and then I can determine what may be the stumbling blocks for anybody.
Will you consider bringing the rescue function back to DeKalb County?
I don’t know that there would be a need for having rescue units. I know that DeKalb County fields a lot of calls—I think right under 100,000—which is amazing. If that type of unit could help to alleviate some of those runs then we would look at it but it would be something that I’d have to analyze before I make that decision.
Where I am now, we just combined a civilian EMS service so we’re now a comprehensive fire-based EMS service and we do transport. One of the things facing the fire department and fire service across the country is the impact on the new insurance guidelines. There are new ways now for fire departments to capture revenue looking at a paramedic-based program operating within the community.
What will you do as the new chief to promote professional growth, not just with the command staff but also for a young firefighter?
One of the things discussed is the fact that there’s attrition and firefighters are leaving to go to other departments. One of the things that kind of causes that is, when firefighters come on they want to know, “What is my career path? What do I need to do to get promoted?”
The first thing you need to do is make the career path clear to everyone; how many years you need to serve in a certain capacity, what the training requirements are and what the process to move forward is. I believe that there has to be a career path for every rank, every level, regardless of whether or not it’s a civil service position or an appointed position.
I do believe it starts at a young firefighter. We don’t want that gap to occur when they leave recruit school and that’s the last day that they ever train. I think you do have to have a good succession plan that demonstrates how you can get to the next level but it’s also important that we’re training individuals right where they are.
We all know that some individuals may not want to move to the next level…they might like what they’re doing but we need to make sure that they’re confident and able to do the job in whatever position they find themselves.
What plans will you implement to improve the relationship and the image with the community?
I believe it starts with meeting the public. They have to know who I am and I have to meet them where they are. I want them to tell me what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing well and how we can improve. To me that’s empowering the citizens so that they know what they say makes a difference.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of members of the department and what I found is a very invigorated, excited department that has a host of skills and interest in handling what they were currently doing. I think the first bit of improving the image is to work within and I found very excited and motivated people.
The next thing is to come together and figure out what the theme of our customer service is going to be….The next level would be to go out and embrace the community. You have a very diverse community here—many different communities that may have a different focus and different needs.
This department has the capacity to address all of those needs and embrace all the different cultures and expectations. So, as the face of the department, I would take that lead but I would not go anywhere without representatives from my command staff who would also be interacting with the community to show that we embrace them as one.
Are you willing to hold community education forums and awareness events to build strong community partnerships?
I think that’s important for all the services that we provide in the fire department. The more awareness there is the more appreciation.
There’s something that I always say: I believe it’s a mistake when the first time a citizen sees a firefighter is when we have our lights and alarms on and we’re pulling [into] their driveway. Hopefully we’ve seen them before that and we’ve met them at these types of events.
Will you bring in your own command staff or will you keep the current interim staff?
The first thing I would do is to assess what I have here. I have not made any commitments to bring anyone in…my first thought is to always look from within. You want to give those personnel who have been here the opportunity for moving up…I’m not necessarily convinced that you have to go outside and bring people in. I think there should be a competitive process and the requirements [should] be put forward for everyone.
I don’t see a need to bring in individuals from the outside. There are some dynamic people here and I’m sure there are some diamonds in the rough that are ready to come out and work very hard to get through the positions and through the ranks.
Like I said, once we have a good succession plan, they’ll know how they can get there, I hope to be here 10 years and I hope the next time this panel will be represented by individuals from within the department.
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