Newton County's new Fire Chief in his office.
COVINGTON -- Big improvements are on the way in the new year for Newton County Fire Service, which is now under the leadership of Chief Kevin O'Brien, who has served as interim chief since May.
The Newton County Board of Commissioners made the formal announcement of O'Brien's appointment last week, but he'd already rolled up his sleeves and gone to work.
O'Brien came to NCFS in 2007 as deputy chief of operations and training. He previously had served as battalion chief and director of training for DeKalb County Fire Department and before that was a firefighter with the city of Hapeville. But Newton County has always seemed like home as he began his career in 1993 as a volunteer with Salem Volunteer Fire Department.
He said he's missed the day-to-day life of a firefighter as he's climbed up the ranks and worked more and more on the administrative side of things.
"Honestly, you always miss being out there on the calls. I think that's why every fireman gets in it for the excitement, adrenalin and enjoyment of being out there running calls," he said. "You miss that camaraderie and living in the fire station and being with that group of guys all the time."
But he admitted that he does sneak out on the occasional call.
"That's the benefit of being at a smaller department like this. I'm able to still get out and run calls and am able to interact," he said. "In a large department, the chiefs of those departments don't have the time to do those things."
O'Brien has several goals for the future of NCFS, some of which will see fulfillment very soon.
"Starting in 2013, we're going to be moving to a BLS (Basic Life Support) medical service," he said, adding that the NCFS has in the past been a first responder trained only in basic first aid. "In my five years here, we've increased from eight to 10 EMTs to approximately 60 EMTs and paramedics. We've been running the calls, but we haven't had the equipment and medicines and things to provide that care. Starting in January we'll actually be providing what they call Basic Life Support and be able to treat breathing problems, asthma, respiratory issues, diabetic complications and have first-line medications we can administer to patients. We can go ahead and get IVs started for medication access."
The NCFS will be working in conjunction with Newton County Emergency Medical Service and the Covington Fire Department to offer this enhanced medical treatment.
"Over the last year, we've put together a medical protocol and we're one of the first in the state to have a common medical protocol, so now when we get on the scene, whether it's in Covington or out in the county, we have the same procedures and equipment," O'Brien said. "It will be a seamless transition all the way through to the ER. Patient care will drastically improve and what we call in our business the survivability rates of patients before they get to the hospital. That's been one of the biggest goals I had when I took over."
Another goal O'Brien hopes to see met in 2013 is the long-awaited training facility the NCFS and the Covington Fire Department will jointly use.
"We now have new property off Piper Road that we're actually getting ready to get the civil engineering done," he said. "Hopefully, by the end of next year we'll have a burn building and a training facility. That's a big plus for us. It's hard to simulate fires and train on fires because there's so many federal and state regulations on burning structures now. You can't just go out and get a house donated and burn it as easy as we used to."
O'Brien expects training in general to increase, and he said he's begun a credentialing system for volunteers where they have classes they must obtain in order to become certified firefighters.
"There are a lot of different rules for the volunteers than for career firemen, but they're running the same calls and fighting the same fires, so I wanted to get credentialing in place to improve their training so they'll be more beneficial to the county. They're a big part of our response so we needed to get their training levels up a little bit," he said.
O'Brien oversees 77 career employees and approximately 115 volunteers, housed in 13 stations throughout the county. The 2011 SPLOST provided for the construction of an additional fire house, which O'Brien said would be strategically placed in one of several pockets of the county that needs enhanced coverage.
He said the Insurance Service Office, which gives guidelines for homeowners insurance premiums, recommends the addition of three stations, but given budget restraints, he said he doesn't see that happening any time soon.
In fact, budget restraints offer the biggest challenges to fire services everywhere, O'Brien said, and administrators in the fire service end of government are having to learn to watch the bottom line.
"I think that's one of the reasons we've struggled so much ... we always just ran things and always had money and the resources we needed," he said. "Now, you're taking someone who's never had business experience and having them run the business side of it and be creative in what they do with their funding."
O'Brien has a bachelor's degree and is working to complete his master's degree in public administration. He just completed his four-year certification as an executive fire officer through the National Fire Academy and he is a certified emergency manager.
A DeKalb County native, he and his wife and six children now live in Social Circle.