LAWRENCEVILLE - A new fire chief Thursday was appointed to head the Gwinnett County Fire Department, less than two months after the last one was forced out because of neglected school inspections.
Steve Rolader, who joined the department as an entry-level firefighter in 1976 and over the years was promoted to assistant chief, has been the acting fire chief since former Chief Jack McElfish was forced to resign in February.
"I've been here 30 years and grown to love this place and the people here," Rolader said Thursday, moments after returning from a celebration lunch with his wife and two adult sons at Red Lobster.
"This just seemed like a wonderful opportunity to continue to serve and hopefully make a positive difference."
Rolader takes the reins of a department given a black eye in February when news surfaced 30 public and private schools had missed annual fire inspections. The county has a policy of inspecting schools every year, but some of the schools had not been checked for fire hazards since 2000. Other schools had been overlooked since 2003.
State law stipulates the county is responsible for inspecting schools, day cares, churches and other buildings, but it does not mandate the inspections be completed within a certain time frame.
Problems at the fire marshal's office, which falls under the umbrella of Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services, were swiftly handled after Rolader took over - the fire marshal and a captain in the department resigned and an inspector retired. A new fire marshal, department veteran Ed Knopick, was named three weeks later.
In late February a private consulting firm was hired to perform a six-week study of the fire marshal's office to make sure every mistake was accounted for and provide advice on policies and procedures. The firm's recommendations will be used to make improvements where needed, Rolader said.
Rolader said his confidence in the department and its staff has not wavered despite its recent troubles.
"While we definitely had some situations that we felt like needed to be addressed, the level of service we provide has never been compromised," Rolader said. "Like with any business, you encounter situations you need to take action on. I think we continue to be recognized as a premier service."
Rolader said his vision for the department is to make customer service a No. 1 priority.
In addition to his three decades of work experience, Rolader also boasts a master's degree in leadership in business from Shorter College. His salary is still being negotiated.
County Administrator Jock Connell, who made the decision to hire Rolader as chief, was out of the office at a conference on Thursday. In a press release issued by the county, Connell praised Rolader's competence.
"Steve has earned the trust and confidence of Fire and Emergency Services personnel during his many years of service, and I am confident he is the right fit for the position," Connell said.