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Over the fence: Chained fire stations filled with recruits

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Despite the chain link fence and the padlock, a newly built fire station on Mineral Springs Road isn't devoid of activity.

While two other sales-tax funded stations sit empty because of a budget crisis a year ago, the end is in sight, as the biggest firefighting recruit class in Gwinnett County history began training last week.

With 21 people already trained as emergency medical technicians sent straight to the field and expected to return to the academy later for firefighting training, another 66 recruits are split between EMT classes and the fire academy.

"It is amazing to have a class that is almost 90 students," said David Dusik, now an assistant chief, who was part of the county's previous record recruit class of just more than 60 in 1981.

For now, the Station 18 replacement facility on Mineral Springs is being used during the day for the EMT school, although the fence is still there to protect the facility at night, officials said.

Along with Stations 29 and 30, it will open full-time with emergency vehicles at the beginning of November, as soon as the recruits graduate.

"We know the chain link fence is ugly, but it's a matter of protecting the citizens' investment," Fire Chief Bill Myers said.

"(People) ride by them every day and want to know what is going on," department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. "But there are a lot of things going on in the background."

Commissioners approved a tax increase late last year, promising to open the stations, which were, at the time, nearly complete.

Within a week after the county budget was approved in January, Myers said, the hiring process had begun to fill the 66 new positions added for the stations, plus another 28 that were vacant because of various retirements and other moves.

With a list of nearly 300 applicants who had already passed written tests and interviews, Myers said 140 conditional job offers were quickly handed out, but because of budget cuts in the human resources functions, the hiring process that includes physical agility tests, drug screenings and background checks took nearly twice as long as it had in the past.

"We began as quickly as we could," Myers said.

While a few of the recruits had started earlier, 80 began their first day with the department March 29.

Battalion Chief Scott Dodson said the training academy looked like an "ant farm" with all the activity this week.

"It's awesome. It really is," Myers said of the new hires who will be spread throughout the county but will allow the department to free up personnel for the new stations.

As a county taxpayer himself, he said he understands the negative arguments to the tax increase.

But even though the stations are not open yet, he said the money is helping to make the county safer.

"I see the benefits already," he said.