AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The Means Report is privileged to present the brand-new Chief of the Augusta Fire Department. We spent some time with Antonio Burden as he settled into his new role.
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Brad Means: Chief, thank you so much for being with us. I really do appreciate it. The first question I have for you really is just to go back to your job as Deputy Chief in DeKalb County, Georgia. You were there for the better part of 30 years. Why in the world would you leave? It seemed like you’d kind of hit your stride.
Chief Antonio Burden: My desire to serve.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Chief Antonio Burden: I am a veteran of DeKalb Fire Rescue 27 years of service.
Brad Means: Well, what appealed to you here versus there kind of staying in your 27-year groove and then bouncing over here, What made you think okay, it’s time for a change?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, coming up through a department as DeKalb, my desire to lead comes from my inspiration to lead. I aspire to inspire others.
Brad Means: And so was it just not enough of a leadership position there? I mean, obviously Chief, I guess is the ultimate goal for a lot of people in the firefighting business.
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, it has been a goal of mine since I was a young lad to be able to work in the fire service first, but then grow and be able to lead a department. That’s truly community-based.
Brad Means: Was it your dream to be a firefighter as a little boy? I know so many boys and girls, myself included dream of doing your job one day. Was that what it was like as a child?
Chief Antonio Burden: Yes.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Chief Antonio Burden: Yes that was exactly me from an early age we feared the fire service. And so being able to realize that dream, it’s a dream come true.
Brad Means: All right, let’s take a look at some of the drama that surrounded your hiring. The lawsuit that was filed against the commission. The commission considering starting the whole search over. My question is how much did you know about all that drama? How closely did you follow it over in DeKalb?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, Brad as a candidate, not knowing anyone in this community, I can only see things from afar.
Brad Means: Were people keeping you posted on the drama?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, as you mentioned, it was in the media and in the papers. And so just be able to see those things from afar.
Brad Means: Chief how did you find out about this job? Who told you that this was an opening and that this would be a good place to send a resume?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, this department is a great department. It’s an ISO 1 Department rated through the insurance commission and I’ve admired this apartment from afar for quite some time.
Brad Means: Yeah but how’d you find out about the job? I mean, like in the television business, we go to certain websites and see what’s available out there and you either mail your tape or you don’t, what’s it like for a firefighter?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, firefighters like myself with aspirations of being hired, quite naturally national searches are made for employment.
Brad Means: Yeah, so I guess my question is people will want to know if the consulting firm that the county hired to find a fire chief, did they reach out to you or did somebody else reach out to you or did you find out about the opening on your own? How’d you know about this opening?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well as I mentioned Brad, this is a great department and as an aspiring fire chief and now fire chief, I reach out and search for opportunities.
Brad Means: So were you the most qualified candidate for the job? And when I say qualified, I know that there are probably several factors involved there. I mean, if I was up against a guy who went to Harvard and I just went to Alabama, does that make him better than me, not necessarily? So in your mind, are you the most qualified candidate for this job?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, Brad I’ve had the opportunity to come through the department. I’ve had the opportunity to achieve every rank within the department and each one of those steps that I’ve taken have led me to here today.
Brad Means: It kind of gives me a feeling for what that’s like. I mean, you’re at the top now, but does your experience kind of give you the perspective? Does it kind of put you in everybody’s shoes because you’ve been there?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, it gives me some semblance of that. It gives me an idea of what it takes. And so I’ve been able to, as I mentioned, reach each and every one of those ranks within the department, this is again a great community. We wanna focus on providing the citizens of this region and this community, what it needs. And primarily what it needs from us.
Brad Means: Chief have you had a chance yet to meet with representatives of the local firefighters union, any meetings with them so far and what can you say about that?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, my goal is to meet with each and every firefighter.
Brad Means: Each firefighter.
Chief Antonio Burden: I would like to meet each and every firefighter.
Brad Means: How many you have like like it’s like 200, 300 in it?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, it’s still early.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Chief Antonio Burden: I’m still learning the department. But I wanna sit down and meet with each and every department and really learn how I can support them. Because the support that I provide for them equals to greater support that we can provide for this community.
Brad Means: Let me ask you this. How will you manage that big team? I know individual meetings. It sounds like a great idea, but once that’s finished and you’re hitting your stride, how do you keep that many people, that many personalities pretty happy most of the time as chief?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well Brad, what’s important to me is understanding that our people are our greatest assets. They’re our greatest assets. And so supporting them through training, goals, performance measures enabled us to provide a better service to the citizens of this great community.
Brad Means: Did y’all have that kind of set up in DeKalb where growth opportunities were there, training opportunities were there? And if you did, how did the department over there respond to those opportunities?
Chief Antonio Burden: Respond well, respond well, Great department has set the foundation for what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown into my position here. And so I’m looking forward and excited to learn and listen and support and provide increased service delivery for our citizens here.
Brad Means: When I look at the job of a fire chief, it seems that historically, any controversy that’s gonna come comes because of the chief and the politicians or the chief and things that happen internally. In other words, it’s never the public that gets mad as long as you show up and put our fires out, we’re good. Would you agree with that, that the toughest task of your job is internally and managing all those personalities?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well it’s first important for us to understand that the fire department as an organization exists solely to enhance the lives of the citizens we serve. And so with that understanding, we’re able to provide support for our folks, training so that they can provide the services that our community want from us.
Brad Means: So what’s that look like as far as what we see in our houses each day? Is response time a huge concern/goal of yours or any fire chief for that matter? Is response time high on y’all’s list.
Chief Antonio Burden: Response time is always an important factor because we wanna get there fast safely. And then have the tools and the equipment to mitigate that, whatever a situation or crisis that is.
Brad Means: So what can you tell us about the way you practice for response times? What do you do to make sure that you can get from point A to point B the fastest? How do you rehearse?
Chief Antonio Burden: Three words, training, training, and training.
Brad Means: What kind of training helps you get somewhere faster? Like tell me what they teach you.
Chief Antonio Burden: Just to be able to mitigate and respond to those incidents. Medical training, fire training, have have enough folks understand and have the tools in which they can provide to the citizens the needs and to be able to mitigate those crisis in a quick and efficient manner.
Brad Means: If there’s a slowdown, if there’s an obstacle that keeps you from responding as fast as you’d like to, is it an obstacle that you would encounter at the firehouse or is it an obstacle that you would encounter out in traffic on the streets?
Chief Antonio Burden: Both.
Brad Means: Yeah. What’s something in here that it would slow you down, not getting dressed fast enough, not sliding down the pole fast enough, What slows you down? What slows you down here? Let me ask that first, ’cause I think it will help people get a better picture of what y’all are dealing with. Maybe generate more awareness and respect in the community. So what’s something here that holds y’all back?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well Brad, we as a department, we train for all scenarios. It’s important that we’re able to adapt and overcome in any scenario. And so we practice when that call for service comes, three o’clock in the morning we practice getting out of bed. We practice know where that call is, we practice putting on our turnout gear. We practice the route that we would take to respond to that emergency. And so all those factors, traffic, all those factors play into how we plan to respond to mitigate those issues.
Brad Means: So how do you practice a route? I think it’s a fascinating point when there’s not an emergency. Do you just drive around town so that your men and women know how to get where they’re going?
Chief Antonio Burden: We study maps.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Chief Antonio Burden: Study maps, study territory, understanding what’s around you proficient pre-planning. All of those things encompass how we prepare to mitigate emergencies.
Brad Means: In a moment, more of our conversation with Augusta fire Chief Antonio Burden.
Brad Means: And We do welcome you back everybody to The Means Report. I wanna go back Chief Burden to a subject we touched on in the first segment about kids wanting to be firefighters. We did when we were little. What about today’s young people? Do they still have firefighting dreams and aspirations? Do you ever get to be face-to-face with today’s youth?
Chief Antonio Burden: We do, We do. And one of the things that I really stress and importance on is community risk reduction. And we do that through, as you mentioned, teaching fire safety. Fire safety to our youth at a young age. Preparing them for that. You know, everybody loves the big red truck. And so we take that time to teach and make them safer and make them increase awareness.
Brad Means: Do you do it in the school, school visits mainly, or do they come to you?
Chief Antonio Burden: We do it in the schools. We also look for them to come to us. And so it’s important for our community to understand once the pandemic is lifted, that our house is your house.
Brad Means: I love it. Used to love visiting fire stations when I was young. What about candidates? What about when they grow up these boys and girls you meet with, let’s say they do fall in love with the profession. Do you need them to sign up to try to be firefighters? Are y’all short handed these days? What should young people especially know about the need for firefighters?
Chief Antonio Burden: Yes, nationwide there’s a definite need for firefighters. And we wanna harness that. We wanna welcome all the men and women of this community and abroad that will wanna join this department. We will welcome that.
Brad Means: All right, so we welcome them and we train them. How do we keep them? What can you do? And again, I know this is very early in your time in Augusta but what can the industry do to keep men and women on the force, to keep them employed instead of leaving?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well as you mentioned, it is early. And so I am getting to know the department. Learning and more importantly, listening. Listening to our folks, understanding what their needs are and how I can support them. And so when you have that understanding, then you’re able to make adjustments that keep the department moving in the right direction.
Brad Means: What was it in DeKalb that ran people off? The search for a higher paycheck, they didn’t like the boss, what ran people out of the department there?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, individuals have their own way of thinking their own goals in mind. But what we have to do as a department and as an organization is understand what their needs are. Understand how me as a fire chief, how I can support them that will enable them to support our community.
Brad Means: Boy, things have changed in 30 years, haven’t they? The way that fire departments are managed and the way that you go about your job, hasn’t it changed a lot at that age you’ve been in this business?
Chief Antonio Burden: It has, it has.
Brad Means: What are some of the biggest things that stand out in your mind that changes? ‘Cause I think it used to be sort of just more basic, you know, more A, B, C. Go fight fires, go save lives, come back. But now there’s a lot more HR in it. There’s a lot of politics, Senate. What are some things that stand out to you?
Chief Antonio Burden: One of the areas that’s really important to me is data. Understanding data. By doing that, we can create data driven decisions, which allows us to increase our community risk reduction. Which has been a really big shift in the fire industry as a whole.
Brad Means: Tell me what kind of data you’re talking about? What numbers are you looking at it? What kind of subject matter does this data cover?
Chief Antonio Burden: So when I talk about data, I’m talking about risks to the community. What are the risks in this region and in this community? Once we understand that and wrap our heads around and understand what those risks are, then we can create targeted programs driven by data that are guided through partnerships.
Brad Means: What are risks? What’s a risk I might notice driving around town.
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, when I talk about data, I’m talking about historical data. And understanding what call types happen in this region. Once we understand those call types, then we can create programs to prevent those calls.
Brad Means: Are times of day or times of year busier than other times?
Chief Antonio Burden: Yes, yes. Again, I’m new to this community.
Brad Means: Yeah in general.
Chief Antonio Burden: And still learning. But yes, all those factors play a part in understanding the risk to this community.
Brad Means: And then so, give me an example of a way you reduce it. Let’s say you found out that at X time of day, the calls are up because of X reason, how do you fix it or address it?
Chief Antonio Burden: So I’ll give you an example. So if we see that there’s a certain type of call that happens at a certain time or within a certain area, we can create programs that will target that risk and get out ahead of that risk. And so I’m very, very excited about being here, very excited about understanding what those hazards are in this community, so that we can create those programs to make this community safer.
Brad Means: Chief what will we notice in the Augusta Community about your impact on this job? If we could fast forward six months a year from now, how will we see your impact on the fire department or will it all be internally? And again, we’ll just see those trucks getting to our houses faster, anything we might notice?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, it’s important for us as an organization to be in a constant state of improvement. When we do that, then we can continuously assess and increase our service delivery model.
Brad Means: Take us through your typical day. And again, I know you’re just starting out here, but what is your work shift like at this point? What kind of duties are you tackling?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, it’s still early, coming in is important for me. Once again to listen and learn, understand the organization, understand how I can support the organization. So continuity of operations is important. And so we ensure that that happens first, but at the same time, get to know our personnel.
Brad Means: So is it a bunch of meetings nonstop?
Chief Antonio Burden: It was always meetings.
Brad Means: Yeah, I mean, just meeting with people, getting a feel for it.
Chief Antonio Burden: Yes.
Brad Means: I forgot to ask you something about hiring and retaining candidates. And it’s the unusual work shifts, is the job of a firefighter still pretty all over the map as far as shifts go? And does that make it tougher to sell to a young person to say, hey look, there’s a lot of overnights. There’s a lot of weekends. Is that something that maybe makes a young person think twice about getting in this business?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well Brad, when someone picks up the phone and calls 911 for help, that can happen at any time of the day. And so it’s important that whatever time that call comes in, that we’re prepared and we’re ready to respond. And we will do that, we will respond.
Brad Means: That sounds lame to a kid who wants to get in the business, man, you got to give me nine to five Monday through Friday. Is that even possible?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, at fire departments we work in shifts. We work shifts as you know. And so we do that. And so that we can constantly be running 24/7. 24/7 we are ready to respond to that emergency, no matter what time it comes in.
Brad Means: We talked about the data that’s so important to you, some of the behind the scenes stuff that helps you figure out how to do your job better. What about the hardware that we see out on the streets? These beautiful pieces of equipment that are around us right now, has technology changed as it relates to them? Has anything advanced since you started in firefighting that helps you put out fires faster or better?
Chief Antonio Burden: Well, as you mentioned, the trucks. The trucks that have advanced exponentially. Technology has played a big part in that. And it allows us to make our jobs easier and more efficient.
Brad Means: What is it, does the water come out faster? Is it whole more water? What’s better about the 2021 truck than the one when you started? I mean, it seems like maybe they look cooler first of all. But I mean, it seems like that I don’t know the right way to say this, but it seems like water pressure, things like that does more water come out of them? Do they hold more? Are the trucks just more reliable?
Chief Antonio Burden: Today’s truck is more efficient than any before. It allows us to do more, it allows us to reach scenes faster and hold the tools that we need to perform our jobs each and every day.
Brad Means: How can we help you? Augusta is a very warm and welcoming community. What do you need from us to help you do your job better? What does your team need from us?
Chief Antonio Burden: The biggest thing I would say is what can we do for you? What do you want from your fire department? As I mentioned before, our house is your house. And so it’s important for us to understand what the community wants from us and so that we can deliver that whatever it is, so that we can deliver that in the best possible way and the way that they expect us to do.
Brad Means: Chief, I know you’re gonna do a great job and I appreciate you taking time to be with me today, all the best to you.
Chief Antonio Burden: Thank you sir, thank you for having me.
Brad Means: Thank you Chief.