Black Mountain firefighters recognized at 100th annual banquet

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Firefighter Austin Edwards gives a raffle ticket to young girl who was one of the approximately 100 people who attended the 100th Annual Black Mountain Fire Department Banquet on March 4.

Community leaders and supporters of the local fire department gathered on March 4, inside the Assembly Inn, for the 100th Annual Black Mountain Fire Department Banquet.

The event, which recognizes the department’s top performers of 2018 and culminates with the Black Mountain Rotary Club’s presentation of the Firefighter of the Year Award, was supported by dozens of community businesses.  

Deputy chief John Wilson, who earned the Firefighter of the Year Award himself in 1986, emceed the banquet for the first time. He welcomed Black Mountain mayor Don Collins as well as aldermen Maggie Tuttle, Carlos Showers and Tim Raines.

John Wilson, the deputy chief of the Black Mountain Fire Department, leads the annual banquet at Assembly Inn on March 4.

“Town manager Josh Harrold and his daughter Lilly are with us this evening, as is town clerk Angela Reece,” Wilson said. “We also have with us the president of the N.C. State Firefighters Association and the chief of the Swannanoa Fire Department, Anthony Penland and his wife Cindy.”

Penland, a Swannanoa native and member of the department there since 1990, was the keynote speaker at the banquet, which was a first for the event, according to Wilson.

“I thought that would be something nice to add to the banquet,” Wilson said of inviting Penland, the deputy chief’s brother-in-law. “Chief Penland is a really good speaker and he has a lot of valuable experience to share; it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to work with him.”

The Swannanoa chief said he was "humbled" to be asked to speak. 

"As I've traveled across this state attending events like this, it has not taken long to realize that fire departments in communities like Black Mountain are the backbone of fire services in North Carolina," Penland said. "I've been in fire service for 29 years now and I still remember that night in January of 1990 when I was being interviewed by the officers and they asked me what were my goals. I told them, simply put, one day I'd be the chief."

Penland did not grow up wanting to be a firefighter, he said, "but all it took was the first time riding in the open cab jump seat, going through a traffic light in Swannanoa, in our 1976 American LaFrance and I knew I was hooked."

Swannanoa Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland, seated next to his wife Cindy, prepares to deliver a speech at the 100th Annual Black Mountain Fire Department Banquet at Assembly Inn on March 4.

"Once it got in my blood it never left," he continued. "I've been a chief now for 17 years and I love putting my uniform on every day."

Firefighters, Penland said, feel a calling to serve but the job is not for everyone. 

"We are here because we love the thrill of doing things that others will not, or cannot do," he said. "Unless I'm missing something, none of us got into this profession for the money. I do not recall a time where firefighters crashed the economy by asking for millions of dollars for bailouts. We all were called and we all realize we can make a difference in the lives we serve."

Penland went on to call on his fellow firefighters to put themselves in positions that will help them take care of one another.

"When a citizen dials 911 they know they're going to get the best of the best," he said. "But what can be done to make sure that the best of the best are being spoken for and cared for? Taking care of the firefighters across this state has got to be top priority."

He cited a need to address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he said is "running rampant among firefighters."

"Departments are three times more likely to suffer a firefighter suicide than a death in the line of duty," Penland said. "That is not acceptable."

He closed out his address by pledging to be a voice on the state and federal levels for firefighters and challenging them to get involved in their local and regional associations.

"The brotherhood and sisterhood of fire services is like no other," he said. "It's not bound by the firehouse door or the district line."

Following the keynote speech, Wilson shared some of the department's highlights from 2018, which included the retirement of long-time chief Steve Jones and the lowering of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating from a class 4 to a 3. The classification, which is determined based on several factors including the quality of the fire department in the district, directly impacts homeowner insurance rates. 

"For total calls in 2018 we ran 1,652 in the town and 877 in the rural district," Wilson said. "That's a total of 2,529 calls and 838 of those were multiple cause. The leading cause of fire in buildings were electric in nature."

Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob McMurray presented the Firefighter of the Year Award on behalf of the Rotary Club. 

"This is the 50th year the Rotary of Black Mountain has given this award," he said. "Frank Williams, in 1968, was the first recipient of the Rotary Firefighter of the Year Award."

McMurray recognized previous winners of the award, which is presented to the department's top volunteer firefighter, before announcing the winner. 

Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce executive director and Rotary Club member Bob McMurray, right, presents the Firefighter of the Year Award to Robert Reed during the 100th Annual Black Mountain Fire Department Banquet on March 4.

"This firefighter completed 105 hours of training, responded to 283 calls and picked up 175 extra duty hours," McMurray said. "Lets give a round of applause to Robert Reed."

Reed, who works full-time at the N.C. State Veterans Home - Black Mountain and began volunteering for the department three years ago, said he was surprised to hear his name called. 

"It's something I've wanted to win since I first came on," he said. 

Reed's goal is to one day complete fire academy courses and become a full-time firefighter at the department. The opportunity to serve is what he enjoys most about the job, he said. 

"I love helping other firefighters out and helping out the citizens of our community," he said. "Every day is a different day, so you always have to be prepared for anything."

Reed was also the department's rookie of the year in 2017, Wilson said. 

"He's a very active volunteer," he said. "That says a lot because, in this day and time, volunteers across the nation are decreasing. Robert picks up a lot of extra shifts for us and that really helps us out a lot."

The department also used the banquet as an opportunity to recognize its volunteer company of the year, which includes Reed, captain Robby Watts and firefighters Scotty Bartlett, Phil Berry, William Lyons, Sue McMullen and Rick Patton. 

The paid company of the year is headed up by battalion chief James Bingham and includes firefighters Chad Williams, John Anderson, Travis Martin, Carl Patton and Garrett Presnell. 

The Battalion of the Year was awarded to Battalion C. 

Black Mountain also recognized Anderson for 20 years of service and Eddy Buchanan, Sue McMullen, Brad Williams and Chad Williams each for their 15 years. Spencer Elliott and Chris Burnette were recognized for 10 years of service. 

"It's important that we recognize our firefighters for the work they do," Wilson said. "This was the most well-attended banquet I've seen in my time here and it makes me glad to see that kind of support." 

Dozens of local businesses supported the event by providing goods and services for a raffle, which was held during the event.