Hail to the Fire Chief

Joel Baker comes in to lead a tired department

"I do know this," says incoming Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker. "We must diversify the Austin Fire Department as quickly as possible." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After a career spent fighting fires – literally and administratively – in Atlanta, Joel Baker is preparing for his next challenge: leading the Austin Fire Department. He arrives as AFD is patching up its tattered coverage map with five new stations; the department is embroiled in negotiations with emergency service districts surrounding Austin; and relations between AFD brass and the rank and file represented by the Austin Firefighters Association are strained, to say the least. The Chronicle caught up with Baker in Atlanta last week. (He starts his new job Dec. 10.)

Baker steps into his role with an open-door mentality that he's shown already, making connections with people such as AFA President Bob Nicks, who was effusive in his praise of Baker's hiring after a frank dinner discussion between the two when the fire chief finalists came to meet the Austin public. Baker says there's a good reason for a collaborative style. "Keep in mind: I am 6'6", 280 pounds – plus or minus," he said with a hearty laugh. "I have a very big stature, and that uniform can be very intimidating. So I must make sure that as a leader I am very approachable."

Baker plans to maintain his predecessor Rhoda Mae Kerr's legacy of active participation in the community, being on hand for speaking engagements, community meetings, and any and all parades. He has a particular interest in mentoring young firefighters, as "one of them will be chief one day."

That being said, Baker is also clear-eyed about his working relationship with AFA. "I believe there are going to be times when the union and I are breaking bread together, and there are going to be other times when the bread is going to get stale because nobody wants to touch it," he said. His guiding philosophy: "What's best for the city comes before what's best for the fire department, because without the city there is no fire department." If union interests clash with those of the city, Baker preaches communication and a willingness to compromise from all parties. If they can't do that, "it's going to be a long day."

As chief, Baker will also have to manage the five new stations the city is building to cover gaps in the current service map, consider the implications on AFD staffing, and prepare to make adjustments. "I will be looking at our staff and response coverage to ensure we have equitable coverage throughout the city," he said.

When it comes to recruitment, Baker said that while he's still working to learn the terms of the city/AFA labor contract, he'll be aggressive in finding new firefighters, and he believes the best way to target specific groups is to send representatives who look like them. "I do know this: We must diversify the Austin Fire Department as quickly as possible," he said. "The diverse workforce is there. We've got to go get them." His first task will be to figure out why the department isn't getting the diverse pool of applicants it desires. Once he identifies hurdles, he said, he will work systematically to tear them down. "It's my job as fire chief to remove as many, if not all, of those negative barriers that I can, to let people know the Austin Fire Department is where you want to make a career."

Another question for Baker is the fate of the county emergency service districts butting up against the growing city, and whether their operations should be annexed into AFD. It's another area where Baker preaches patience and communication. He hopes to get all parties together to discuss what's best for each community, what annexation would look like, and which jurisdictions have the resources to provide service. "We just need to sit down in an open room, be truthful to each other, put the resources on the table, put the needs and wants on the table, and see if we can make it a win-win," he said.

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