Originally created 01/07/97

Candidates for fire chief outline visions



Augusta commissioners meet today, once again hoping to select a fire chief.

Commissioners had been scheduled to choose from the three finalists Dec. 30, but postponed the decision until they had a chance to interview the candidates face-to-face on Friday.

The meeting will be at 2 p.m. on the eighth floor of the Municipal Building.

The three finalists are Dennis Atkins, acting chief of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department; Ronnie Few, fire chief of the East Point, Ga., fire department; and L. Charles Smeby Jr., executive director of the National Fire Protection Agency and a former battalion chief for the fire department in Prince George's County, Md., a Washington suburb.

During Friday's interviews, the commissioners repeatedly asked candidates their views on promoting minorities, implementing drug policies and easing tension within the department. Here are some of the candidates' responses.

On promoting minorities

Mr. Atkins: One reason minorities have not been promoted is because some of the previous white chiefs had been in those positions for so long, he said. "I'll lay some of the blame at our own feet. We haven't prepared for these (promotion) tests and for the positions."

Mr. Few: As East Point chief, he hired the department's first female employees and helped place minorities in higher ranks, said Mr. Few, who is black. "I believe in diversity," he said.

Mr. Smeby: "I do believe in affirmative-action type programs, especially when a particular group is not well represented." he said.

On why they want the job

Mr. Atkins: "I'm a lifelong resident of Augusta," he said. "I'm interested in this community. I think I can provide the leadership to move this department forward."

Mr. Few: "I took over a department that nobody thought much of. Now we've got a department that is so user-friendly, even the high-rise apartments called us to say `Thank you.' It has gotten to the point where it's not a challenge anymore."

Mr. Smeby: He left the Prince George's County Fire Department after being kept out of an investigation of a fire in which a firefighter was killed, he said. "I really miss fire service. I really like a challenge and I think this is a challenge."

On settling infighting

Mr. Atkins: Part of the problem stems from miscommunication between the various ranks, he said. He supports a plan to improve communication by starting a department newsletter. But he said some friction will remain regardless of who is hired as chief. "Any time you have a change in the leader you're going to have some dissension in the ranks," he said.

Mr. Few: Getting people together is the key to resolving issues, he said. "Sometimes we don't learn from each other. As an outsider, I would try to learn from as many people as I could."

Mr. Smeby: "Part of the process is bringing people together to talk about common problems and problem solutions," he said. "I enjoy bringing people together."

All agreed the department should have a random drug testing policy that allows for follow-up tests to ensure accuracy.