Clayton County taxpayers approved funding for a fire department in October 1966. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
RIVERDALE — Landry Merkison grew up in Clayton County with one dream — to be an architect.
Scientific-minded and methodical, the clean lines of a structure appealed to Merkison but, it turned out, not as much as when the lines are burned.
“From the fire side of a house, you have to understand why buildings are designed the way they are to be safe,” he said. “You have to understand how a house is made to understand how they burn. Houses will react one way to fire, commercial structures will react another way because of the building materials and the way they are made.”
After breaking the news to his parents, Don and Jackie Merkison, that his dreams of being an architect were up in smoke, Landry Merkison set about learning all he could about fire science.
“It’s really, really cool to reconstruct a fire and figure out how it started,” he said.
Merkison was installed in December as the fourth chief of Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services in less than three years. His office inside the Riverdale headquarters is still somewhat sparse but there is an open Bible on his desk, important passages highlighted in yellow, along with framed photos, a container of gum and a stack of paperwork waiting to be signed.
Across the office, on top of a bookcase, is a black-framed ballot from October 1966. The small document represents the votes residents cast to approve taxes to fund the formation of a fire department for Clayton County.
“We’re an all-hazards agency,” said Merkison. “We handle everything not handled by the police department. People think of us first as a fire department but 87 percent of our calls are med calls. We also get calls when someone’s water heater floods or when they smell gas, especially in apartments.”
Merkison said the department handled 32,000 calls last year — less than 1 percent were for structure fires. Clayton boasts about 260,000 residents.
In 1977, the department added emergency medical services. That service hasn’t evolved much in 37 years and consists mainly of picking up residents and taking them to the hospital of their choice. Depending on their level of medical need, they can sit in an emergency room for seven or eight hours waiting to see a doctor.
That scenario isn’t optimum and Merkison wants it to change.
“I want us to look at community paramedical care,” he said. “We need to figure out how to do that without compromising care. Patients just want to be taken care of. For a lot of residents, we are their primary care.”
The department transported about 12,000 patients to Southern Regional Medical Center last year while taking a lesser number to area hospitals. Most of the rides were in older ambulances with tens of thousands of miles on the odometer. The department uses 12 units with five in reserve.
Each unit can cost upward of $135,000 — a big bite for Clayton County taxpayers. Merkison’s idea? Partner with the private sector to offset costs. He got Clayton County Board of Commissioners to agree straight away to buy one unit and got permission to seek help in getting a second.
“We can either sit and deal with what we have or seek out ways to increase what we have,” he said. “Why not partner with businesses? I like to think outside the box and be progressive. The need isn’t going to change. If the county can’t afford it, we need to find someone who can.”
Merkison worked under longtime chief Alex Cohilas and his successors, Jeff Hood and Dwayne Jackson. He isn’t out to re-invent the wheel but plane a smoother curve.
“The organization was left run very well,” he said. “Each chief sought to leave the department better than when he found it. But we each want to put our spin on it. I’m not looking to go where others have gone. I want to go where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Merkison is also actively seeking input from the rank and file.
“I’ve opened command staff meetings,” he said. “Anyone can come by and watch and listen. I wanted to give them a voice and allow them to have feedback. I also want to give them as much insight as to how the department is run, it’s as much their department and I value their opinion. So far, that’s served us well.”
On the horizon is ground-breaking on a new training facility, funded through SPLOST. Not only will the facility provide in-house training for the department, it can generate revenue by offering regional services.
“The training facility is going to be huge for us,” said Merkison. “The revenue potential is such that the county will get a huge return on its investment.”
Accreditation is also forth-coming.
“When we finish accreditation, we will be only the second department in the state to be accredited,” he said.
Merkison said he is thankful to be surrounded by dedicated men and women who sacrifice their lives every day for the residents of Clayton County. He said he is also fortunate to have chosen fire services over architectural design but the department can’t remain stagnate.
“Fire services have to progress,” he said. “Traditionally, we’ve always done things a certain way but we have to be progressive. This is truly one of the most time-honored professions. I appreciate the dedication of the department to this community. The men and women in uniform make us look good.”