Left to right: Firefighter Finch Kiker, Driver/Operator Josh Jones, Firefighter Clay Vaughan, Captain Rodney Nordan

By Richard Sullins | richard@rantnc.com

It’s not often that heroes actually get the recognition deserved for their deeds, but the city of Sanford got the chance last week to extend its gratitude to four firefighters whose gallantry recently made the difference to a man whose life was hanging in the balance.

Mayor Rebecca Wyhof Salmon said the first order of business at last week’s Sanford City Council meeting was also probably its most important – the recognition of the Engine 2-C’s shift whose action saved the life of a man during a response to a fire call last month.

Sanford Fire Chief Matt Arnold recounted the details of the story for council members, how the fire department received a call at 8:52 p.m. on July 3 about a potential fire at a residence on Aspen Drive, and how the shift was dispatched to the scene.

When the team, consisting of Captain Rodney Nordan, Driver/Operator Josh Jones, Firefighter Clay Vaughn, and Firefighter Finch Kiker, arrived within two minutes of receiving the dispatch, they found that the front door to the apartment was locked and were told by bystanders that an occupant was thought to be inside.

Arnold said that “after forcing the front door, the crew found an unconscious male victim inside a smoke-filled apartment. Working as a team and in very short order, the crew established a water supply should it have been needed, removed the victim, began emergency medical care prior to the arrival of EMS, and controlled the event which had originated in the kitchen.”

“Without their prompt response, rapid entry, and immediate life-saving care of this patient, the occupant of this apartment would have no doubt suffered a different fate,” Arnold continued. “While we recognize that saving lives is a part of our jobs, we should never underestimate the impact these firefighters had on this man’s life.”

Salmon told the team of four “on this day, you stepped up and did something that truly made a difference for one of our residents that will never be forgotten. From the bottom of our hearts, we just want to say thank you for what you do every day, and for what your entire department does every day, to protect the residents of this city.”

The presentation of the Unit Citation certificates was also attended by a large number of firefighters from across the city who came to support their brothers, all wearing their ceremonial dress uniforms. Salmon said the opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery of the city’s firefighters was one of the rare moments in life when it was actually possible to see “heroes walking among us.”

Fire department receives grant

The recognition of Engine 2-C’s Shift came on the same night the council was informed that the fire department had been awarded the largest grant in the state so far in the current federal fiscal year that ends September 30, a total of $338,176.19 in the form of an Assistance to Firefighters Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

AFG grants are targeted to projects that will enhance the safety of firefighters and the communities they serve, and these dollars will pay for the purchase of 40 new Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus units, commonly known as air packs, that will replace other aging units in the city’s inventory.

“Air packs are absolutely critical to our ability to protect our residents while also keeping our firefighters safe,” Arnold said.

Since coming to Sanford as its fire chief just one year ago, Arnold made replacing the older air packs a high priority. At a cost of nearly $8,750 per unit, purchasing 40 of them at once could put a real strain on a city’s budget.

But city leaders wanted to do everything they could to protect the lives of their firefighters and having the best equipment was seen as one of the easiest ways to accomplish that goal. So, a decision was made to apply for grant funding to help with the purchase.

It was a bit of a risky strategy, because almost every fire department in the country is eligible to apply for these dollars and the grant proposals are scored against one another on a competitive basis. Additionally, the city had to keep hoping that the older packs would keep working until FEMA made its funding decisions for the current round. But it paid off, and with about six weeks to go before the program year ends for 2022, no city or town in North Carolina has been named the recipient of a larger AFG award this year than Sanford.

As a condition of being awarded the grant, the city had to pay for 5 percent of the total costs of replacing the 40 air packs, or $16,908.81. That brings the total project cost for the air pack replacements to $355,085, meaning that the city’s 31,000 residents will be able to replace all 40 of the older units with new ones for about 55 cents per person.

“I think by about anyone’s standard of measurement, that’s a good deal,” said City Manager Hal Hegwer.