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Barrow fire chief to retire early

WINDER - Barrow County Fire Chief Mitch Kitchens on Wednesday announced he will retire May 31.

Kitchens served a five-day suspension last week after being accused of mishandling two grant applications. He was also suspended without pay in May 2005 when he was accused of falsifying insurance reports and not reprimanding an employee.

Former County Commission Chairman Eddie Elder hired Kitchens in 2000 to lead Barrow County's Fire and Emergency Services. Prior to that, Kitchens had worked 11 years in the public safety field with the Winder Fire Department.

Although Kitchens has enough years behind him to retire, at 37 he is too young to draw benefits. He said he will have to wait until age 50 for his pension.

Kitchens, the grandson of a South Carolina fire chief, began his firefighting career at age 18 with the Winder Fire Department in 1989. He moved to Athens-Clarke County Fire Department in 1993, while continuing to work part time for WFD. In Athens-Clarke County, Kitchens worked his way up the ranks into the fire marshal's office. He was hired as Barrow County's fire chief in 2000.

As fire chief he served on numerous boards and committees, including the state executive board of fire chiefs, as president of the Georgia Fire Inspectors Association and went to various schools teaching fire safety.

Kitchens was instrumental in bringing the fire department to where it is today, according to Keith Lee, Barrow County's chief administrator.

"He assisted in making the fire department full time while he was chief," Lee said. "While he was here, we built four fire stations, purchased our third brand new fire truck and we are designing a future training center. He has been a vital part of moving the fire department to its current state."

The ability to help people is what attracted Kitchens to public safety work and kept him there for 18 years.

"It's like the ministry, it is a calling," Kitchens said. "You can't do it just to have a job. When we meet people for the first time, they are not having a good day. Our job is to control the situation and try to make their day better as best we can. I wanted to make a difference."

After 18 years, Kitchens has served in nearly every position in fire service, he said, but still wants to work in a service profession. Whatever he chooses to do, his plans don't include a move from Barrow County.

"I was born in the county annex across from my office," Kitchens said.

County commissioners don't have anyone in mind yet to fill the upcoming fire chief position.

"It was a surprise," said County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison. "We will formulate the process before too long."