“Never Forget” is a slogan that the American fire service enjoys using. People never forget major events, brothers that have gone before us, or historical fire service moments, though it often drifts far from a firefighter’s daily thoughts over time. Sometimes a small show of brotherhood is delivered in a way that makes it difficult for one to have an important memory far from their thoughts. I have questioned over the past few years if true brotherhood is a dying breed. All too often it is preached and brotherhood slogans, tattoos, and stickers are popular, however it has as of recent seemed to me that the brotherhood of yesterday may not be the brotherhood of today’s world. Earlier this month, I was shown that brotherhood is not as far away as at times I feel it is.
I began my time in the fire service with the City of Raleigh Fire Department Explorer Post. At age 16, I was approached by a few Raleigh Fireman, two of which would become lifelong friends, about joining a small volunteer fire company near my home. This organization had saved my own mother’s life in 1996 when she was trapped in a van under several trees during a hurricane. I decided that is where I wanted to be. The night I became of age, I joined the Falls Fire Department, a decision that makes the list of my top 3 best decisions of all time. Never have I encountered an organization that had a bigger concentration of skilled fireman, dedicated members, or that fostered a family atmosphere of that caliber. I was fortunate enough to make some lifelong friends, learn some very valuable lessons about life and the business, and create a foundation for my career at the Falls. From the first day I joined that little white firehouse on the outskirts of Wake Forest, North Carolina and Raleigh, North Carolina, I was told that the organization was on “the closure list” as the County of Wake continued to find solutions to consolidate the Wake County Fire Service in a fiscal savings move. Fortunately, the leadership of the organization dodged closure for many years, mostly due to their dedication and shared love for a one of a kind organization. In 2010, it became apparent based on the information given to the organization that closure was inevitable if a merger wasn’t completed. We met as an entire membership and decided the route in which the majority wanted to move. It wasn’t an easy time at that little white house, knowing that shortly, your identity would change…. Forever. That date would be March 25th, 2012.
Falls Fire Department was formed in 1969 when citizens of the Falls of Neuse Community in Northern Wake County, North Carolina saw the need for fire protection in their small cotton mill community. The Falls of Neuse Community Club, which operated a small “hall” type facility, offered the newly formed fire department use of their building. The first members of the organization built the bays and money raised by the ladies auxiliary bought their first fire truck from Durham Highway Volunteer Fire Department. Lacking sufficient funding and requiring an upgrade to the “phone tree” style of fire call notification, the first members of the organization found a wooden telephone pole near a utility sub-station and using a tractor dragged the pole down Falls of Neuse Road to the new firehouse. The pole was raised and a civil defense air raid siren was placed on the pole for notification of a fire call. There were no contractors, no foreman, no architects, and not much money. What they did have was dedicated fireman, drive, passion, and members that placed their own homes up to secure funding. In 1970, Falls Fire Department was chartered by the State of North Carolina. These traits continued flawlessly throughout the life span of the fire department.
Until 2005, the newest Fire Engine in service was a 1994 E-One. Wake County had begun purchasing fire trucks for the county fire departments as they controlled all of the budgets and tax generated monies. In an effort to further set into history the organization’s identity, the new Pierce Pumper-Tanker was painted in a Black over Red paint scheme, a color combo that was not used in the North Side of Wake County. The back door had the patch, designed by members several years earlier to showcase the old Erwin Mills Cotton Mill and the Falls of Neuse Road bridge over the Falls Lake Dam release. Directly below the patch was the organization’s nick name, “The River Rats”, a name taken from a band of lawless men that called the Falls home and later the name of the community baseball/softball teams. In 2009, that fire engine’s twin was purchased. With two of these beautiful pieces in the house, you would have thought all of the Falls Fireman had won a million bucks, especially since we were an organization that always lacked funding, did more with less, and had the smallest, oldest firehouse in the county.
Moving now back through time again to 2010, the tough decision was made to merge with a local organization that had a great relationship with our organization, had similar values, and that would allow the newest generation of Falls Fireman a place to call home and grow in the fire service. By this time I had risen to the rank of Battalion Chief within the organization. I had encountered some leadership challenges prior to this point, but none like I would find myself having to deal with. The biggest challenge of all was to keep some of the best fireman I had ever known, motivated, trained, and willing to devote their time, when they knew the end of the Falls was quickly approaching. All of us attempted to continue like we had another 10 years left. The day to day operations continued and calls came in and the trucks went out. The organization had gone through some changes prior to this time, the biggest being that a 24-7 volunteer staffing program, with part time personnel assistance during the week days was required. The community had grown and with it came neighborhoods that none of the fireman could afford to live in. With not many close enough to respond quickly from home when a fire call was dispatched, home response died. We were challenged to staff our trucks every night and weekend with a qualified crew. But like everything else, we rose to the challenge and for the most part, succeeded.
Leading any group of people, whether it is firefighters, police officers, or vested corporate employees is a paramount task when they know the end is in sight. How do you find the will power to appear to your men that everything is alright when you are just as upset and scared as they are? The answer is simple. You find it somewhere deep within or you fail. As a leader in this situation you have to hide your feelings for the most part, put on a motivated hat, and give everything you have within you to encourage your men. I am not sure that any leader can understand that plight, unless you have attempted to lead individuals in a merging or closing organization. It was the most difficult challenge of my career.
Volunteerism in itself is a different animal completely than the paid fire service. I know that the common argument is that both are the same fire service. While I agree that both do the same job in terms of Fire-Rescue, there is a distinct difference in the two firehouses. Having served in both capacities for many years, I can say from experience that it is different. While I love my career, there is something to be said about my volunteer years. Volunteering in mostly volunteer organizations is a big commitment. You take on this commitment with little to no compensation. For generally free, you give up time with your family to train, fundraise, and to respond to emergency incidents. There has to be a true love of the job and the community to place yourself in a volunteer position. The bond that you form with those that volunteer beside you is one of the strongest bonds one can experience. There is a bond in the paid fire service, one that I personally promote and enjoy, however the volunteer bond is different. I had and still have a second family from the Falls. We know each other’s families; we relax together, have cook outs together, party together, and sacrificed together. The support network that existed at Falls was one that I have yet to experience anywhere. Our community was our family. If anyone in the community needed help, we were there. The community and the fire department becomes part of you. It’s not about the fun, the thrill, or the status, but of something much much larger; something to this day I cannot put into words. It is a special thing to be a part of an organization like this, one that my mere description cannot accurately depict.
On March 24th, 2012, a large group of members met at the firehouse at 2100 hrs. We sat in the firehouse smoking cigars, drinking Arnold Palmer Tea (a Falls thing), and told old war stories. It was one of the best times of my life. Everyone laughed as we all talked and for a moment, everyone forgot that in less than 24 hours, things would be changing. On the way home that night, I cried. I knew what the next day would bring, and even though I was very optimistic about the future with our new organization, the pain of losing part of my soul burned deep.
On March 25th 2012, we met at the firehouse in dress uniforms for the merger ceremony. As I had dressed that morning, I remembered the hard work it took to even have those dress uniforms. As an organization we had waited tables at a local restaurant to raise the money for uniforms. I sunk inside remembering that it was the last time I would wear that uniform.
The ceremony began a block from the firehouse with only Falls Firemen and a pipe and drum band. I was driving Falls Car 1 as the rear of the procession with a personal hero of mine, a founding Falls Fire Department member, Chief William Jackson. On the hour, the air raid siren sounded for the first time in over 6 years (it was turned off due to community complaints about the noise……) signaling the start of the ceremony. The Falls Firemen marched to the firehouse to begin the ceremony in fine fashion. The ceremony went well with speeches, motivational talks, historical references, and a radio sign off by the only remaining active charter member, Chief William Jackson. We marched into parade formation and each Chief Officer inspected his line of Falls Fireman. I was the last Chief to inspect my members. I spoke in a whisper to each of them as I walked down the inspection line. Most were crying which further tore my heart. Following my inspection I marched to the Wake Forest Fire Chief and the Falls Fire Chief, saluted, and said aloud through tears, Company 21 is ready. Following the inspection we took our oath together for the Wake Forest Fire Department. The new chapter was here and honestly, we were scared and excited at the same time for the new opportunity.
I am no longer volunteering with the organization. I did not leave on any type of bad terms, but simply because of time constraints. From March 25th, 2012 until now, I have worried that the legacy, history, and memory of Falls Fire Department would be forgotten. That single event changed me as a person. I have worked in a few different organizations at many different levels and in many different capacities. Falls Fire Department was remembered by those that had a part in its history, but like anything else, a historical memory that had moved away from everyone’s daily and weekly thoughts.
On September 26th 2013, the second of our twins, Tanker 217 was to be delivered to the Town of Zebulon Fire Department in Zebulon, North Carolina. As part of the merger deal with Wake County, we had to give up the truck to be redistributed to the county fleet. Assistant Chief Chris Wilson of the Wake Forest Fire Department, the former Falls Fire Chief sent me an invite to ride on the truck to Zebulon for its final voyage. I had since left the organization and was delighted that Wake Forest Fire Department thought of me to take 217 to its new home. I had ridden that truck to its first call, a working residential fire, and I would get to ride with the crew of its first call on its final ride. I dug a Falls Fire Department shirt out of my closet for the ride and we delivered the truck to its new home. I smiled as I drove home that night.
In early November 2013, I received an email with photos of the truck. Zebulon had repainted the truck to match their white over red paint scheme fleet. It was the next photo that made me sit back in my chair in awe. The Zebulon Fire Department had purchased a plaque honoring the Falls Fire Department and placed it on the side of their new Engine 92 in a private dedication ceremony. I thought “wow” as my eyes filled with tears, “what a generous show of brotherhood”. That simple gesture reminded me that people don’t forget parts of history that matter. It also provided me with living proof that the brotherhood of firefighting is alive and well. The latter of those two reminders/lessons is the most important part of Zebulon’ show of brotherhood. They reminded many that brotherhood is much more than the stickers, tattoos, and verbal remarks. It is about living it.
A special thanks to the Zebulon Fire Department, Zebulon NC, and Lee Wilson Photography for contributing to this article.
Justin Graney is the Officer Development Instructor for Tailboard Firefighting of North Carolina, an Airport Firefighter in Raleigh NC, aFirefighter with the Youngsville Fire Department in Youngsville NC, and formally a Battalion Chief of the Falls Fire Department in Wake Forest NC.