Former Atlanta Fire Chief to lead Austin Fire Department after unanimous support from City Council

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Former Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Joel Baker will take over the reins at the Austin Fire Department following an Austin City Council vote on Thursday.

City Manager Spencer Cronk appointed Baker to succeed former chief Rhoda Mae Kerr earlier this month. Kerr, who was the first woman to lead the Austin Fire Department, left earlier this year to take over a fire department in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Baker is the first African-American to serve as Austin fire chief.

Baker said he was “humbled” by the confirmation and thanked interim chief Tom Dodds for his work.

“I pledge full commitment and to continue the support of the Austin Fire Department, which is a fire department that’s recognized and respected not only in the state of Texas, but throughout the country,” Baker said. “So it’s my goal to continue to serve as an ambassador, not only to the city of Austin, but to the Austin Fire Department.”

Upon his appointment earlier this month, Cronk said Baker’s experience—over 30 years with the Atlanta fire team—leadership and public commitment made him right for the job.

On the dais at City Hall Thursday, council members expressed their confidence in the city manager’s choice to take the fire department into the future.

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said she was impressed by Baker’s “fresh perspective” in their one-on-one conversations.

“One of the things that we spoke about was wildfire,” Alter said to Baker. “As we have members of our force that are in California fighting wildfires, I look forward to working with you to make sure our city is ready and prepared to avoid those situations, and should they occur, that we have everything that we need to keep our citizens and our property safe.”

Bob Nicks, leader of the Austin Firefighters Association, acknowledged the friction that has come between the union and city over the years—most recently with the shortage of fire stations in the city and overtime pay for firefighters—but praised Cronk’s choice and City Council’s confirmation of Baker.

“I’ve spent time with Chief Baker in person and over the phone and I truly believe he’s the right person to lead us to the next level,” Nicks said. “I feel very confident that with his leadership we’re going to be able to solve the issues we had and move on to running the department in even a better manner.”

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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