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County names fire marshal

LAWRENCEVILLE - Just three weeks after a school inspection scandal rocked the Gwinnett County Fire Marshal's Office, a veteran firefighter has been named its new leader.

Ed Knopick takes over the embattled office after the fire marshal and a captain in the department resigned and an inspector retired amid an investigation the department had failed for years to inspect a couple dozen schools.

The scandal even led to the forced resignation of former Fire Chief Jack McElfish.

"(Knopick) is the right combination of experience and education and is going to provide the leadership we need in that area," Acting Fire Chief Steve Rolader said.

Knopick, brought in to assist the office as soon as the controversy began, said he was glad to help.

"You can't ask a firefighter not to respond to a call for assistance," he said.

After working as a volunteer firefighter in his native Virginia, Knopick joined the county fire department in 1981 and began working at the fire marshal's office in the late 1980s, while studying fire science through correspondence courses.

He was promoted to captain and oversaw both the planning review and field inspections divisions. Then, after more than a decade in that office, Knopick took an opportunity to lead a crew at a fire station.

Knopick was at work at a Hamilton Mill fire station when Rolader called seeking help at the fire marshal's office while the schools scandal was unfolding.

"It was bittersweet. I'm sad not to be with them. We'd grown close," Knopick said of the people at his former station. "At the same time, I think we all realize the importance of what we're faced with."

This week, the 25-year veteran bought frames for the family photos that had been decorating his locker at the fire station. Now they are on his new desk. His helmet, still marked with soot, sits atop a filing cabinet.

Knopick said he hopes to incorporate the engineering lessons from online classes he has been taking to earn his master's degree.

"I see an awful lot of potential in where we can take the fire marshal's office," he said. "We're in a process of doing an assessment of where things stand."

As a man writing a master's thesis after he's become a grandfather, Knopick believes in striving to improve.

"I'm very much aware of getting entrenched in a way because that's how we've always done it," he said. "We're always seeking to improve ourselves. We're in trouble if we don't.

"They (staffers) are very anxious to move on. Everyone has a lot of ideas. We're interested in finding out how we can make ourselves better."