Longtime Clayton firefighters Charles “Mickey” Jones and Jason Barbour agree that times are different now. Not worse, they said, but different.
Jones and Barbour, who retired recently with a combined 53 years of part-time service, joined the Clayton Fire Department as volunteers – unpaid residents who just wanted to lend a hand. Now, like most fire departments, Clayton pays all of its firefighters, regardless of full- or part-time status.
“This is not a volunteer fire department anymore,” Barbour said. “This is a career-oriented fire department.”
Barbour, a third-generation firefighter, said he never questioned whether he’d volunteer when he signed up 23 years ago.
“It was born in me,” said Barbour, who is also director of Johnston County’s 911 center. “I have been around the fire department since I was knee-high.”
Barbour’s grandfather served from 1912 to 1959, and his father volunteered from 1960 to 1987. He joined the fire department in 1991, not long after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill and becoming a Johnston County sheriff’s deputy.
“I’m glad my dad got to see me on the fire department and see that his son was following in his footsteps,” Barbour said. “He never told me I had to do it, but he was proud that I did it.”
Barbour said he is retiring in part because Clayton is set to join a medical responder program, which will require firefighters to respond to more medical calls. He said that could interfere with his full-time job.
“The fire department is transitioning with the times, and the demand of the public is increasing,” Barbour said.
Jones, a Smithfield native who joined the department in 1984, had no family connection to the fire department. Rather, he became interested after firefighters responded to a chimney fire at his home.
“I just wanted to do something to help the community,” he said.
The Smithfield-Selma High School graduate applied at Clayton but wasn’t sure he would make the cut. “Nobody knew me,” he said.
But he did get on, and his full-time career in pest control and odd jobs allowed him flexibility to spend more time at the fire department. He rose in rank and served as secretary and chaplain for several years. Jones, who officially retired as a captain in May, said he is leaving to spend more time with his family.
“I’m going to miss those days,” Jones said. “It was just a family, a brotherhood.”
Safety and memories
As Clayton’s population and firefighting needs have changed over the years, so have the equipment and training that firefighters rely on to stay safe.
Jones remembers that when he started, the department had just two air packs for a handful of firefighters to use. That is, if they wanted to use them.
“It was frowned upon to wear an air pack because you weren’t a man unless you didn’t wear an air pack,” Jones said.
Barbour said when he started, gas-monitoring equipment didn’t exist.
“The equipment we had access to was good, for what was on the market at that time,” he said. “But the equipment that a new firefighter working today has access to is tremendously different and helps them to be safer.”
But less-advanced technology didn’t keep the department from putting out what could have been devastating fires. Barbour remembers well responding to a large fire on Main Street that he said should have taken out several blocks.
“It had gotten a head start on us, before anyone called 911, but we did what we could,” he said, adding that firefighters contained the blaze to the building that it started in. “We got a lot of help from outside the department. It was very good teamwork.”
A fire that stands out in Jones’ mind ended in tragedy. It was a blaze off Little Creek Church Road in the late 1980s that claimed the lives of a mother and three children.
“My thing is as long as we’ve done everything we can do, I can deal with it,” Jones said. “Just like this one, I can remember it, but I know we did everything we could do.”
As longtime part-time firefighters like Jones and Barbour continue to retire, the department is looking to fill the void. After not making any new hires since 2011, the department announced in June that it will hire 18 new part-time recruits.
Town spokeswoman Stacy Beard said the recruits will go through up to 401 hours of training and will be required to work four shifts a month. Beard said while some of the recruits have past experience, others are recent high school graduates.
“The town is growing and maintaining a healthy pool of highly-trained, part-time officers,” Beard said. “That will help us better serve the public and respond to emergencies.”
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104