NEWBERRY — Gene Shealy is making the safety of Newberry County citizens his number one goal with his promotion as the captain of Recruitment and Retention for the Newberry Fire Department.
Shealy came off his shift work June 30 to help with day to day operations. The promotion is part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant awarded to the department.
The grant will fund 100 percent of the position for four years. At the end of those four years, the City of Newberry will have to decide to continue the position, or let it go.
Born and raised in Newberry, Shealy attended Newberry High School, later attending Piedmont Technical College for year in business management. He will go back to school in August to attend Columbia College to study emergency services management.
Shealy’s career began with Newberry Fire Department in 2005 after graduating from the S.C. Fire Academy in April of that year.
“I can’t say I ever really wanted to be a firefighter,” Shealy said. “It just sort of happened.”
When Shealy was attending PTC he was studying business management.
In 2008, he was promoted to engineer. After classes and achieving certification, his job included driving the fire engines and pumping water from the engine to the fires.
An internal position within the department was also given to Shealy in 2008 as he was promoted to senior engineer. Although no pay increase, Shealy’s responsibility grew within the department as the position required him to run the station when other officers are off duty.
In January 2012, Shealy was then promoted again to lieutenant, putting him working under the captain. As lieutenant, Shealy said this meant he would coordinate training and daily activities, along with being the incident commander on fire scenes when the captain was not present.
With Shealy’s newest promotion, his main goal is to get more volunteers for the department. Currently the department has 11 volunteers, but Shealy said their roster maximum is 21 people.
Each volunteer firefighter needs 240 hours of training to get to a NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) Level 2, which is what the department’s full time and current volunteer staff has obtained.
“I have to go through an application process and conduct interviews to make sure people understand the hours, commitment, and training involved with this job,” Shealy said.
Not only are volunteer firefighters needed, but Shealy said the department could use three to four supporting roles as well. This would include people who have experience as a volunteer in the past or people who were previously in a department.
These rolls would be involved with jobs such as safety officers or to provide support in other areas when needed, such as community service outreach.
Outreach rolls Shealy explained could be for events such as the recent Fourth of July holiday.
“We cannot throw all of our resources out there (in Newberry) and not have any here (the department),” Shealy said. “It’s great to have volunteers to come back and help.”
Shealy said his goal is to make sure that he’s doing everything he can so that citizens have the trust of their firefighters who may enter their homes in need.
“They need to ensure professionalism and that they are trustworthy,” he said.
At the end of four years, Shealy hopes the city will continue the position to benefit Newberry.
“We’re optimistic about this new position,” said Mayor Foster Senn. “This will help in training and recruitment and hopefully help the county departments recruit as well.”
Senn said the city is hopeful for good results and if so, they could see the position continuing after the four years of the grant.
Interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter? Call 803-321-1030 for more information or visit scvolunteerfire.org and provide the requested information. The state will email contact information to the correct county where you could volunteer.
Shealy said their department was unique in that their volunteers get paid to go through the training process.
They are also paid to come back for fire calls when needed, however Shealy stressed that a volunteer firefighter was not a part-time job as they are usually paid by the quarter.
When applying to volunteer, Shealy said each person will fill out a participation agreement form which clarifies the training expected within their first year, monthly meetings, and other training expected.
Physicals will also be done for volunteers. If over the age of 40, Shealy said they are completed every year, but every two years if under 40 years old. “We want our volunteers to be physically fit,” he said.
Although a lot is involved with the job, Shealy said he does not want volunteers to be discouraged or overwhelmed because their families always come first.
One of the biggest problems Shealy said volunteers face is being overwhelmed. Having someone like himself to mentor them through the first year is what he feels is going to make the biggest difference.
“We have to understand that these people have families,” Shealy said. “They’re not going to leave their kids at home alone to go to a fire.” “However, our firefighters do have to leave their families often without notice to go to a fire. Firefighters should make sure their families understand the sacrifice before signing up.”
His own family
Recently beginning his own family, Shealy married Desiree in December 2013. Desiree is a police officer for the city of Newberry. Shealy said they met in 2012 when she first came to work with the city.
Because they both have more demanding jobs, Shealy said he feels that has helped him to understand how important it is for volunteers to put their families first.
Desiree will work days for a month, before switching to night shift, which Shealy said was difficult as one would come home as the other was leaving for work.
What Shealy said is best about their similar career paths is that they both understand the commitment and dedication it takes to have their professions.
With more volunteers Shealy hopes it will also take some of the strain off of their career firefighters. “Sometimes they (career firefighters) will be gone from their families for 72 hours out of their week,” Shealy said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Fire Chief Keith Minick said Shealy doesn’t mind training, learning new skills and keeping in shape by working out at the gym to be ready for unusual calls they may encounter.
“I look forward to his work as the recruitment and retention coordinator and concentrating on the needs with more trained and dedicated volunteers joining our staff to continue serving our community,” Minick said.
Off the job
Shealy is involved in the Honor Guard, which he and Lt. Burt Mohler organized nearly three years ago.
“It took a year of training and fundraising to get everything we needed and it has been successful ever since,” Shealy said.
The honor guard is a four member team of firefighters from the department. They are available to the state for memorial services, firefighter funerals, as well as color presentation. Most recently they assisted Greenville Honor Guard with a Mauldin Firefighter funeral and presented colors at the annual Newberry Electric meeting in April.
Shealy describes the guard as a strong and close group that display pride and ownership for the fire service.
Away from the job Shealy said he enjoys playing golf, working in his garden, and working out at the fire department gym.