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Cochran Returns to Atlanta to Finish What He Started

Cochran Returns to Atlanta to Finish What He Started

Kelvin Cochran (Department Photo)

The Atlanta Journal Constitution via YellowBrix

June 20, 2010

ATLANTA — When Kelvin Cochran was approached in mid-2009 by President Barack Obama to become the U.S. fire administrator, he made three phone calls.

Atlanta was in the midst of a heated mayoral election and Mayor Shirley Franklin, who had hired him as the chief of the Department of Fire Rescue, was vacating the office. As an appointed official, that left him in limbo.

So he called Kasim Reed, Lisa Borders and Mary Norwood, the three top candidates for mayor, and asked for his job.

Borders and Norwood, he said, weren’t thinking that far ahead, but encouraged him to go to Washington and work for Obama.

He played phone tag with Reed.

“When I got the call from Washington, I was six months away from being unemployed. I was bold enough to call the three front-runners to see if I could have a place in their administration,” Cochran said from his Washington office. “But, unfortunately, I was unable to achieve three out of three yeses.”

So, after only 20 months on the job as the Atlanta chief, he packed his bags and went to Washington.

Ten months later, Reed returned Cochran’s phone call and named him fire chief.

“It has been a tremendous honor to serve as President Obama’s fire chief and America’s fire chief, but my career calling is to be Atlanta’s fire chief,” said Cochran, 50. “I am returning to something I did not want to leave in the first place. I have a chance to finish what I started.”

Union chief Jim Daws said that during the process of finding a new chief, there was a misguided perception among some of the department’s rank and file that Cochran left them after they bought into his program.

“But what is widely misunderstood is that when he left, he did not have a job offer from Atlanta. He did have one job on the table, the best job in the country,” said Daws, president of the Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Daws said Cochran “has demonstrated his commitment to Atlanta" by returning.

Helping to ease the transition back is Joel Baker, who took over as interim chief when Cochran left for Washington. Baker and Brenda Nishiyama Willis, who manages the department’s airport field commands and operations, were the other two finalists for the job.

“I consider Chief Cochran my mentor, so I have no hard feelings about this at all. It wasn’t my turn, but that doesn’t mean that my turn will never come,” Baker said.

Cochran returns to a fire department that, like many departments in the city, is in flux.

Firefighters have complained that there is a general morale problem in the department because of staffing and salary issues. The department has about 917 firefighters, which is about 25 percent fewer than is needed for a city the size of Atlanta, Daws said.

Pay — starting at a little over $35,000 — is about 30 percent “behind other major metro departments,” Daws said.

Right now, the Atlanta City Council is considering a budget proposal that would give only police officers a raise.

“We are overworked and underpaid. A classic combination,” Daws said. “It has been a long time since we have had good news. And it is patently unfair that we are not being considered for raises. No municipal employee takes greater risks than firefighters, and they are asking us to assume second-class status.”

These are issues that Cochran is not unfamiliar with. During his previous tenure, he had to deal with drastic budget reductions, furloughs, brownouts and the closing of several fire stations.

“During the 20 months that I was in Atlanta, we went through a lot,” Cochran said. “We had tremendous economic challenges. But, strangely enough, those hardships that we went through together built such a tremendous commitment and bond that I did not want to leave.”

Cochran said among the challenges will be the need for new and better equipment and repairs at several fire stations. He said that through attrition the department is losing between 50 and 75 firefighters a year, so there is also a need for professional development programs.

“The need, as far as human resources, is to have an advocate who speaks up on their behalf about salaries, benefits and programs they need to do their jobs well [and] to enable them to take care of their needs and the needs of their families," Cochran said.

He said he was moving back to Atlanta this weekend to await final confirmation by the City Council.