Atlanta fire chief, alumnus on importance of local leadership

By Candace Morrow
Photos by Suhyoon Cho

Today Fire Chief Joel Baker may meet with the mayor. Tomorrow he may visit area stations to determine if new resources are needed.

And the day after, the 6-foot-6-inch tall public figure may read to local elementary students, inspiring them to pursue a career as a local firefighter. No day is ever the same.

“I’ve never been at one station longer than three years throughout my career,” said Baker, an Atlanta native and current fire chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department (AFRD). “I guess I can’t sit still now. Although I’m on the administrative side of firefighting, which includes meeting with city council members, our business professionals and citizens, I find time to support my team and community.”

Baker always wanted to advance as a firefighter, but he wasn’t sure exactly how. Throughout the years, he learned about and worked in different roles within the department to figure it out.

Then he had an “aha” moment: He wanted to become his hometown’s fire chief and do his part to protect its members, citizens and visitors. And he did just that. Now Baker is AFRD’s highest-ranking member and commander.

“I’ve been a paramedic to hazardous materials technician to fire lieutenant and section chief,” said the Columbus State University alumnus. “I made that decision to advance, so I went to school full time, too.”

Climbing the ranks and excelling academically helped him achieve his goal.

Currently, the almost 30-year fireman oversees 36 stations within the City of Atlanta, and his chain of command includes 1,110 firefighters and civilians — from human resources and financial planning to an administrative staff and property management personnel.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources and policy studies at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Baker learned about CSU’s Command College from a classmate.

“I enrolled, and every class I took at CSU, I use today in some form or fashion,” said the top-performing student. “Command College helped prepare me to become Atlanta’s fire chief.”

Command College is the state’s designated educational training center for public safety professionals. In collaboration with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, the program offers both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses that equip Georgia’s public safety professionals with effective leadership skills to take on their respective fields with a higher standard of professionalism, community protection and scholarship in mind.

“One thing about CSU is the networking involved from joining Command College,” said Baker. “If I need to justify or gain clarity before making any professional decision in the department, I either refer to my Command College directory of former students to get their expertise and help or turn back to my course workbooks.”

Courses like human resources management and development, internal affairs and governmental finance and budgeting have guided Baker in his post.

“Command College was convenient; helped me earn and maintain my training hours; and although the courses were tough, the writing and critical thinking components have helped me make sound decisions on behalf of the department and city,” he said. “Learning alongside other public safety professionals also gave me insight into other departments and how we can work together to make positive change in our communities.”

Command College’s director, Billy Mixon, considers Baker a public figure who constantly leads by example.

“Command College provides a conduit for high-performing public safety employees of city, county and state government to obtain higher education degrees,” said Mixon. “Chief Baker is an example of how Command College takes in an already exceptional talent and provides tools that enhance that talent to serve his profession and community better.”

Baker studied hard and earned a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in justice administration from CSU.

“Chief Baker is unique because he has the educational background and continued to move up the ranks in the city he grew up in,” said Sgt. Cortez R. Stafford, public information officer for AFRD and a sworn member of the department. “He is open, honest, fair and remains invested to his hometown and this department.”

After serving in the Marine Corps, Baker started fighting fires in the late 1980s as a 23-year-old rookie. Each year that followed, he moved across different fire stations and sections of AFRD to understand the full scope of his passion for saving lives.

As he approaches his 30th year on the job and possible retirement in April 2018, the chief admits he’s not too sure of his next steps.

“Being a firefighter has never just been a job for me — it’s been a career,” he said. “I do not take this opportunity for granted. I also know there’s a next chapter. I’m too young to just sit at home. The fireman spirit in me will always drive me toward helping as many people as I can.”