Chief Steve Jones lived his 'childhood dream' at the Black Mountain Fire Department
Growing up in Black Mountain, Steve Jones didn’t have to go far to find his calling.
In the heart of his hometown was a small fire station on West State Street that he would stop by as a teenager.
“I was hooked from that point on,” Jones said.
On Nov. 28, nearly four decades after first becoming a junior fireman at the Black Mountain Fire Department, the chief will retire after having lived out his “childhood dream.”
Jones was 17 in 1980 and had already enlisted in the Navy when a friend of his invited him up to the old station, which is currently home to the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.
“I had about a year before I had to leave,” he recalled from his office in the building that the department moved to in 1984. “I really liked going up there and I felt a real sense of purpose.”
Jones left the Swannanoa Valley for the Navy, where he served as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Nashville when it was deployed to waters near Beirut, Lebanon as part of multinational peacekeeping effort in the early 1980s. He also spent two years aboard the USS Iowa.
"I'm pretty proud of the fact that I served on a battleship," he said. "Not many guys my age can say they served on a ship that saw time in World War II and Korea. I've served my country or my community my entire adult life and I'm proud of that fact."
But even while overseas, Jones knew what career path he would choose.
"I spent every day that I was home at the fire department," he said. "My heart was at this department."
Jones volunteered at the department for 12 years and learned valuable lessons under longtime chief Gary Bartlett. He became a full-time firefighter in Black Mountain in 1992.
"Chief Bartlett was the chief who raised me, basically," he said. "I was very lucky to learn from him."
Jones, who began his tenure as chief on Jan. 1, 2008, discovered at a young age that Black Mountain was "not your typical department," he said.
"We do everything," he said. "We have to be ready for and trained in a little bit of everything, whether it's fires, wrecks, EMS, rescue, Hazmat, you name it. If there is an issue on the trails we respond to that too."
In 1998, he was one of the first to arrive at the Drexel Heritage Furniture manufacturing plant after an employee shot and killed two co-workers and wounded three others.
"Active shooter situations were very uncommon then," he said. "Tim Rayburn and myself were the first two rescue people on the scene right behind the police officer who took the suspect into custody, but we didn't know if there was another suspect at the time or not."
His experience during his 38 years with the department has made him a valuable resource for young firefighters, according to deputy chief John Wilson, who began volunteering with the department in 1985.
"He's been very helpful since the day I started," Wilson said of Jones. "He's always been a good educator as well as a great firefighter."
The department will lose "a lot of experience" when Jones retires, the deputy chief said.
"We'll also be losing a tremendous leader and a good friend," Wilson said.
Under Jones, the department has focused on keeping up with the increased demands of a growing town.
"When I started as chief we had a minimum staffing of four people on a shift," he said. "Now we have six full-time employees and one part-time employee everyday. That's a significant difference."
Black Mountain Fire Department's two stations respond to about 2,500 calls for service a year, according to Jones.
"We're way busier than we used to be," he said. "Calls increase at a rate of about six percent a year."
Most of those calls originate within the town limits, Jones said, but a growing number of them come from just outside of Black Mountain.
"We serve the rural district and the town district," he said. "So the town has around 8,000 people, give or take, but we serve over twice that many because we have more than that in the East Buncombe Fire District."
Not only has the department kept up with the growing demands for service, according to Swannanoa Fire Department chief Anthony Penland, it's thrived under Jones' leadership.
"His role is to balance the needs of the two districts his department serves," said Penland, who is also the president of the N.C. Sate Firefighters Association. "So he can't only focus on the needs of the town, he has to also focus on how to best serve those who live in the East Buncombe Fire District as well."
For an idea of just how well Jones and his department have responded to that challenge, Penland points to the fact that both districts recently received an improved rating with the N.C. Department of Insurance after an inspection by the fire marshal.
"To be a class 3 fire department is a big deal," Penland said. "And as the town grows, the department has to grow with it because that rating has an impact on who wants to come to the town."
Penland, a native of Swannanoa, attributes much of Jones' success as the chief in Black Mountain to his commitment to his community.
"He's from the community, he knows the people there and I believe he has true compassion for the town and the citizens that he serves," Penland said. "He's the kind of guy who takes pride in protecting the people and the community he serves."
Jones will be missed, according to town manager Josh Harrold.
"He's been an important part of Black Mountain for a long time," Harrold said of the chief. "His dedication to serving the town is exceptional."
The search to fill the position is already underway, according to Harrold.
"We have started advertising the position already," he said. "We've had a considerable amount of interest already."
While the search for a new fire chief has no set timetable, there are specific qualities Harrold would like to see in Jones' successor.
"We want someone with experience," he said. "I'd also like to find someone who is team oriented in their approach."
Jones, who said he plans to spend more time with his family after he retires, feels that he's accomplished all of the goals he set for himself when he became the chief.
"For me to hang around here just to hang around I'm depriving one of these guys the opportunity to be a battalion chief or lieutenant or deputy chief or chief," he said. "I don't want to be that guy that everyone wonders why he's still hanging around."
But the legacy Jones leaves behind at the Black Mountain Fire Department is one to be proud of, Penland said.
"Eventually we all have to leave," he said. "But if you train the people below you properly, then there is no transition the citizens see because the commitment to the level of service remains high. I believe that serving the community is something that Steve has helped keep a big part of the culture in that department."