By Gregory DL Morris
A few weeks after Jay Mebane took the helm of Chapel Hill Fire Department (CHFD) in July 2023, the Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street caught fire. “That was a significant fire for the town,” he said. “My assistant chief of operations, John Williams, was the incident commander. He did a great job. I was on the scene for support. We got a lot of support from neighboring jurisdictions. There were about 80 firefighters on the scene.”
Mebane, who had been chief of the Burlington Fire Department for 15 years, said with a smile, “The first few months have been interesting and exciting, to say the least.”
The Med Deli fire highlighted the capabilities of CHFD and its close working relationship with other departments in the area. New Hope, Carrboro, Eno, Hillsborough, Efland, Mebane, North Chatham, White Cross, and Orange Grove all provided units “in suppression,” fighting the fire. South Orange Rescue, and Orange County provided support. Hillsborough, North Chatham, and the City of Durham covered the town while many CHFD units were at the fire.
Mutual aid, where nearby departments send units to large incidents, is common, especially in suburban and rural areas where departments tend to be small but are responsible for large areas.
Firefighting as a career
CHFD is a career department, which means all the firefighters and officers are full-time professionals. That also means that mutual aid calls are at the discretion of the incident commander. Mutual aid calls are automatic in many cases for departments that are staffed by volunteer firefighters or are a combination of volunteers and some professionals.
One of the major accomplishments of Mebane’s first few months was bringing staffing levels up to full strength. “When I came in we were at a deficit,” he said. “We recruited aggressively, and received more than 200 applications.”
CHFD has 96 positions, 81 of which are in operations – those who fight fires. Of the latter, 79 are filled. The department is still accepting applications: https://www.townofchapelhill.org/government/departments-services/fire-department/join-the-chapel-hill-fire-department
The new firefighters underwent 200 hours of initial training. All firefighters with CHFD take close to 200 hours of training annually, 36 hours of emergency medical technician training and six hours of hazardous-materials training, Mebane detailed.
The town’s distinctive blue-and-white apparatus are in good shape thanks to high levels of maintenance and repair. “We have a long-term plan for fleet replacement, as well as station renovation and possible relocation,” said Mebane. “Our growth follows the density and geography of the town. The lifespan of a commercial building is about 50 years.”
Fire truck vs fire engine
Many people use “fire truck” and “fire engine” interchangeably, but that is inaccurate. Engines are pumpers and primarily carry hoses; trucks usually carry ladders or specialized equipment. Tower ladders and snorkels also have pumps. CHFD has five engines, two ladder trucks, one rescue truck, and two battalion chief vehicles. It also has several support vehicles. They operate out of five stations. https://www.townofchapelhill.org/government/departments-services/fire-department/stations-and-apparatus
Mebane said the department also acquired new hoses, turnout gear, and electrical extrication equipment.
False alarms and nuisance alarms are a challenge for all fire departments, particularly for CHFD, given the dormitories and classroom buildings on campus. Burnt bagels are the bane of every department that protects a university.
“We do run a significant number of alarms,” said Mebane. He added that the department works with university officials, businesses, and homeowners to minimize false and nuisance alarms. Those add wear and tear on the apparatus and could delay response to a real incident if crews respond to a false alarm.
False alarms notwithstanding, preparedness is paramount. “We care deeply for our school population and town residents,” said Mebane.
Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.