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As of the beginning of 2018, the president of the N.C. State Firefighters Association had never been a firefighter from any of the 16 non-municipal Buncombe County fire departments.

That changed on Aug. 11 when Swannanoa Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland was sworn in during the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo in Raleigh.

“It was humbling to know a person from a small community fire department is now leading the association,” Penland said. “I feel very blessed.”

Penland, who became the first president from a Buncombe County fire department (excluding the City of Asheville) in the association's 131-year history, joined the Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department in 1990 as a way to serve the community he grew up in.

“I’m 50 years old and I’ve lived here for all 50 years,” he said. “I love this community, and I really believe it’s the greatest community to live in.”

Penland is a graduate of Owen High School and attended Montreat College for a time before attending A-B Technical Community College and Fayetteville State University.

“I played sports here as a kid at Charles D. Owen Park; I’ve done everything here,” he said “I raised four kids right here in this community and my mom and grandmother both still live here.”

With two stations, the Swannanoa Fire Department serves a 25-square-mile area with 37 firefighters, six of who are volunteers. The rest of the department’s roster is filled out with a mixture of part-time and full-time personnel.

“We’re very proud of Chief Penland’s accomplishments since he’s been with the department,” said Ronald Hillabrand, the chairman of the board for the Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department. “He’s done a lot for the community here.”

The board passed a resolution on Aug. 21 recognizing Penland for being elected president of the NCSFA, which includes over 51,000 members from over 1,000 departments from all 100 of the state's counties.

“Western North Carolina doesn’t always get the recognition that us Western North Carolinians believe it should get,” Hillabrand said. “So it’s significant to see Chief Penland, who is the 91st person to be elected to this position, become the first from one of the Buncombe County departments. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

The NCSFA is among the oldest state-based associations of its kind in the country, and advocates for legislation that benefits firefighters, Penland said. 

"And if there is any potential legislation that could be harmful to firefighters then we oppose it," he said. "One of the biggest things in the past couple of years is there was talk about legalizing fireworks that shoot into the sky, but fire services can't support that because that's a big safety issue."

Penland, who has served on the Western N.C. Association of Firefighters for 10 years, was named Career Fire Chief of the Year for 2015 by that organization. He has also served as the president of the Buncombe County Fire Chief's Association.

"There are 1,384 fire departments across the state, and they go from rural Western North Carolina to the Outer Banks," he said. "I've been blessed to be able to go to Raleigh and stand, where some departments, like Cherokee County, they may not be able to make it that far. That can limit their voices, and I want to be the voice for all firefighters."

Advocating for improved retirement benefits for departments that operate as nonprofit organizations, like his, is among the issues the NCSFA is dealing with right now. 

"Our nonprofit fire departments don't have the same 30-year retirement as those with municipal departments," Penland said. "There is totally different set of rules for municipal departments when it comes to employment, but when it comes to training and inspections of departments, we follow the same rules."

Penland joined the association in 2013 after successfully campaigning for votes the prior year. Once on, he served as the director of the Western Region before being elected second vice president. He ascended to the role of first vice president before his current position. He will serve a year as the "immediate past president" once his current one-year term is up.

His goal as president is to do what's best for his fellow firefighters and the association he represents, he said. 

"The association is bigger than any one person," Penland said. "There were 90 presidents before me and there will probably be 90 presidents after me. But I like to quote Harry Truman: 'It's amazing what we can accomplish when we don't care who gets the credit.'"

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