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News 13 Investigates: Firefighters working with family

It’s a source of pride across generations, following in a family member's footsteps by becoming a firefighter. (Source: WLOS Staff)

It’s a source of pride across generations -- following in a family member's footsteps by becoming a firefighter.

A question sent to the News 13 I-team asks how three family members can work at the same fire department?

In Buncombe County, News 13 found it's not uncommon for families to work within the same department, and, in many cases, there's no policy to say they can't.

Consider it a trial by fire. Training burns are how new recruits sharpen classroom skills. No one knows this better than longtime firefighter and Swannanoa Fire Chief Anthony Penland, whose son is a soon to be a certified firefighter.

“He called me or texted me and said, ‘Dad, I made my first attack on a structure fire.’ So I called the guys and said, ‘How'd he do?’ And they said he did fantastic,” said Penland.

Since he was 3 years old, Penland’s son Jarrod has wanted to follow in his dad's turn out gear.

“He did apply for our last position. He did not get it,” said Penland.

Jarrod hasn’t yet finished his training, and there were more qualified candidates ahead of him. So Jarrod’s volunteering for the department.

“The fire service is rich in tradition, and one of those traditions is family members following family members into that profession,” said Penland.

Making nepotism policies within county fire departments as gray as the smoke Skyland Chief Dennis Presley battles. He works with three immediate family members.

“We can't afford to let those family members go because we just wouldn't have anybody to come out at night when we would need them for the big fires,” said Presley.

His wife Lisa, the office manager, has seniority.

“She was here first, then my son came along after he graduated high school, then my daughter graduated college and she came along and I didn't hire any of them,” explains Presley.

Skyland's board of directors approves candidates and hires for the department. Departmentwide, there are 18 employees working with family, that's 20 percent of the department.

Checks and balances require Presley, his wife and daughter to report separately to the board. The board also supervises hiring and pay increases.

“We make sure that we're transparent. Any time someone wants to come in and look at the books, we will show it to them,” said Presley.

Buncombe County fire departments differ from the city of Asheville, which has an established nepotism policy, disclosure form and requires family members to work in differing sections or shifts. But in the county, firefighters aren't county employees. The county contracts with 20 independent departments, all nonprofit businesses which can have a nepotism policy or not.

“Nepotism in its true context is basically someone taking advantage of his or her position to hire a family member even if that family member is unqualified. That won't happen at this department,” said Penland.

When News 13 checked county departments, all but two had family members working together. In a time when many county departments rely on volunteers, and finding them is tough, three generations volunteering at Broad River Volunteer Fire and Rescue makes a difference.

“We did it with dad because, basically, there weren't enough people. You had to get anyone you could get when you worked woods fires,” said Virgil Gilliam, a Broad River firefighter.

Even wives were pressed into service in the beginning four decades ago.

“When we started to set it up, we didn't have quite enough men. So, actually, there is a picture over there, so about five different ladies, we joined and helped with it,” said Ruby Gilliam, Virgil’s mother.

While Ruby's only fought brush fires, at 82, her husband Luny was still lending his expertise during the recent Party Rock Fire.

“This last fire, they wouldn't work overnight. That's when you work on your woods fires, at night because the wind dies down,” said Luny Gilliam, former firefighter and current volunteer.

Chief Penland says, since he's forced to rely on off-duty personnel to respond with volunteers to a fire, he wants employees with a stake in the community.

“We're going to look for the best candidate for that job, and it really comes down to performance issues,” said Penland.

If that's a family member, Penland says, “so be it.”

Chief Penland's son and nephew plan to take their final certification tests in the next few weeks.

Penland also serves on the North Carolina State Firefighters' Association Board. He says they don’t make any recommendations to departments when it comes to nepotism policies. A Buncombe County commissioner who’s been working with departments on budget items tells News 13 in his five years on the board, they’ve received no complaints about hiring practices.

If you have an item, you want the I-team to investigate email us at Iteam@wlos.com.

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