Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Bill Myers, who has been with Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services since 1983, has been fire chief for about three years. During his time as chief, the department has increased its focus on prevention and education, opened three new stations and started several other successful programs.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County Fire Chief Bill Myers isn't really into talking about himself.
Even when the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs names him its 2012 "Fire Chief of the Year," he'll only grant an interview under certain parameters: namely, that the discussion is more about the department's achievements than his own.
"It's a tremendous honor, but when I think about everything that they talked about when they presented the award, man, I didn't do that stuff," Myers said. "Our folks did those things. So to me, what the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs did was recognize a fire department of the year."
Myers has been the head of Gwinnett's fire department for more than three years now, taking over right as economic turmoil struck the county and the country.
In Sept. 2009, after Gwinnett County had offered a retirement incentive for employees, the fire department alone lost 58 employees with more than 1,500 years of experience. Three fire stations -- a relocated No. 18, as well as brand new Nos. 29 and 30 -- sat with chain link fences around them, built but unable to be staffed.
Meanwhile, call volumes continued to increase along with Gwinnett's population.
A great many things have changed for fire and emergency services since then -- and most of them are very, very good.
"I'm very happy to say that, a little over three years later, we made some good decisions," Myers said.
Since Myers took over, all three of those fire stations have opened, and a fifth batallion chief has been added.
The departure en masse of so many department veterans, Myers said, turned out to be a positive thing.
"It was good for us from the perspective that we got to really take an in-depth look at what we do and how we're doing it," Myers said, "and kind of re-align functions, if you will, with the people that were still here."
One of the key realignments brought a new focus and emphasis on community education and prevention.
Though call breakdowns remain fairly constant -- 75 percent medical, 5 percent "actually something burning," 20 percent other, Myers said -- volumes for Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services continue to raise 4 to 5 percent each year.
It was time for the department to spend more time on prevention.
Primarily since 2010, a new focus has been placed on sweeps, classes and education under the overarching F.A.C.T. (Fire And Community Together) program. Very successful hotel and apartment safety programs have made big headway -- last year the number of department responses to apartment complexes (whether fire-, medical- or pool-related) dropped 14 percent.
Programs and classes aimed at helping prevent slips, falls and other medical emergencies with senior citizens have also been started. The department also began serving as the lead agency for Safe Kids Gwinnett.
Capt. Tommy Rutledge, who helps oversee the Community Risk Reduction Division, said that "in the first five months of 2012, the department saw an almost 56 percent increase in requests for fire and life safety educational programs as compared to the same period in 2011."
"If you get out ahead of the incident ever happening, you can slow that call volume growth a little bit," Myers said.
The department has also recently added a new apparatus building (a centrally located storage area for additional equipment used primarily when repairs are needed), hired a new fire marshall (after a prestigious national search) and had its medical director named "medical director of the year."
Myers, who recently became a grandfather for the first time, joined Gwinnett County fire in 1983 after serving in the U.S. Navy. His impression on the department as chief has been a significant one -- but you won't hear it from him.
"It's so easy when you have so many folks that care deeply about what they're doing," Myers said. "And do it."