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Cornelius News

Father, grandfather ignited passion for firefighting

Fire Chief Guerry Barbee grew up in Cornelius

By Dave Yochum. Cornelius’ new fire chief is coming up on his 25-year anniversary with the fire department and he’s only 40 years old.

Forty-year-old Guerry—pronounced like Gary; Guerry is his mother’s maiden name—Barbee was 15 years old when he joined as a junior fireman in 1994.

He’s seen a lot since then:

• The town’s first ladder truck in 1999

• New, tightly packed neighborhoods with barely enough room for a firetruck to get by, let alone a ladder truck

• Massive new homes that, if there were a major fire, would overwhelm four-inch water mains

• A fire on Nantz Road where he be

came disoriented upstairs in thick smoke. He was running out of air when another firefighter led him down stairs that were behind a door.

• A fire on Staysail Court two decades ago that saw a mansion burn to the ground. Eight enormous columns fell out toward the street when Barbee’s truck pulled up.

• A series of arson fires in 2010-2011 in the Glenridge community that saw a half-dozen homes burn, thankfully with no loss of life. Charges were dropped—evidence burns up in a fire

• The Admiral’s Quarters fire in March that saw an un-sprinklered condominium building engulfed in flames

Barbee always wanted to be a firefighter. In fact friends remember him as the only kid who really did know what he wanted to be as far back as elementary school.

The North Meck High graduate comes by it naturally. His father Jim Barbe was a long-time volunteer fireman in Cornelius as well as the fire chief. His late grandfather Hal Sharp was also a volunteer firefighter here—when he wasn’t running the old Midway Pharmacy and soda shop on North Main.

Being fire chief here is a big, albeit part-time, job. There are two stations in town, and the need for a third, as Cornelius has leapt from a population of 20,000 to 30,000 seemingly overnight.

Station No. 1, the original on South Main Street, has three engines, one ladder truck and a heavy rescue vehicle.

Station No. 2, the “new” station off Jetton Road, has two engines and one ladder.

A ladder truck runs $900,000.

There are a total of 70 firefighters and 10 officers operating within a $1.4 million  budget. All the firefighters are men, but the “door is always open” for women, Barbee said, explaining that the physical requirements are rigorous regardless of gender.

His full-time position is fire captain with the Charlotte Fire Department at Station 18 in front of West Charlotte High.

Barbee has a two-year fire technology degree from Central Piedmont Community College, where he graduated in 2014.

He works 24-hour shifts and sleeps in a small bedroom at the station in Charlotte. Rank and file firefighters sleep in a dorm setting.

Back in Cornelius, Smith and his wife and three kids live a long block from Station No. 1 where he has an office.

He runs a department with the help of a solid team which routinely goes from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds. These are the guys who elected him chief, replacing Neal Smith, who is also a Charlotte firefighter.

It’s sort of a hybrid organization, still called volunteer, but where per diem firefighters from full-time departments are paid $15 an hour to moonlight here. As a separate organization from the town, the Cornelius-Lemley Volunteer Fire Dept. provides firefighting services like a vendor or a contractor.

Last year during town budgeting, a fire department show of force at Town Hall resulted in a raise for the guys who risk their lives for the rest of us, from $13 an hour to $15.

Thirty years ago, people and volunteer firefighters worked close to where they lived. Commuting into Charlotte was unusual and volunteer fire departments were the norm across much of small-town America.

Then Cornelius went to a part-time paid system in June of 2000.

Meanwhile, those skinny new streets and houses packed closely together in Antiquity, the sprawling Autumn Care project filled with elderly residents, and a surfeit of 10,000 square foot homes require a more intensely trained department than Cornelius needed 30 years ago.

Barbee recalls a conversation with an urban designer during a charrette years ago where he pointed out the streets were too narrow for big fire trucks. The designer said “get smaller trucks.”

And the department has remained part-time, with some volunteers.

Eight firefighters are on duty at any given time, so the department can respond to calls in less than the national standard of six minutes.

How long this patchwork quilt of staffing can continue is anybody’s guess—the town has grown faster than anyone expected. It’s only a matter of time before the department goes full-time. Davidson political leaders say merging with their volunteer fire department is a long shot. A shared 911 system fell apart when Huntersville bailed out; however, a regional merger study is under way.

“As a manager, I trust in the guys,” Barbee says. “You’ve got to have the best interest of the department, the town and the men at heart. It can’t be a selfish thing. It has to be something you want to do for everyone as a whole.”

Cornelius chiefs are paid $30,000 a year to run an operation on call 24-7, fashion a budget and, equally importantly, interface with town leadership.

“There’s a lot of ‘business’ that has to go into an organization like this. My plan is to use all the officers to the best of my ability, spread the responsibilities amongst the guys and hold people accountable for their actions,” Barbee says.

He also takes random calls to the station that come in at any time of the day, including one from a woman whose smoke detector was high up on a cathedral ceiling—too high to reach herself.

The battery needs changing. “Where are you? We’re glad to do it,” Barbee said.