08/21/11 — Mar Mac Volunteer Fire Department marks 50 years

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Mar Mac Volunteer Fire Department marks 50 years

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 21, 2011 1:50 AM

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Eli Baker, left, and Jaymeson Pope, back, listen to intern Ross Kelly as he helps them try on some firefighting gear at the Mar Mac Fire Department's 50th anniversary celebration Saturday.

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Honor Guard members Roberto Mendoza and Chief Bill Harrell stand at attention as Mendoza reads the names of deceased firefighters.

Mar Mac Fire Department started out near Love Memorial Baptist Church with a small building and just a couple of trucks, but through the support of the surrounding community has grown into a force to be reckoned with, as its reputation as a well-trained unit has grown.

Since being formed in 1961, the all-volunteer organization has moved to a new base of operation and expanded its repertoire of rescue vehicles to include a water response team, three ATV's and two jet boats, to name a few.

The first expansion -- a short distance down Old Grantham Road at the intersection of Sandhill Road -- came in 1985, said Roberto Mendoza, assistant chief and a member of the honor guard.

"We go out and do ceremonies -- funerals, flag posting ceremonies and bell ceremonies," he said of the newly formed honor guard, which boasts nine members. "We practice quite a bit."

Training may be the operative word for the 30-member squad. In addition to learning new trends and techniques associated with fire fighting, there are all types of rescue and medical emergencies members need to be equipped to handle.

"The state requires us to have 36 hours a year (of training) -- that's minimum," said Mendoza. "But the majority of us, I think probably half of us had over 100 hours of training."

Today marks the official 50th anniversary date for Mar Mac Fire Department. But the doors were opened to the public for a celebration on Saturday.

Bill Harrell, who joined the department in 1985, has been chief for 20 years.

He takes great pride in the premises, which include a kitchen, day room, bedrooms and showers to accommodate 32 people. The two-story segment was added on in 2004 to the original five bays, training room and office.

Much has happened in the half century of the department, Harrell said, pointing out that there was one era in particular when there was a bevy of activity and growth.

"In the course of about three to five years, we had the flood of 1999, which was catastrophic, the county did away with the volunteer squads and asked fire departments to take on some of the rescue," he said.

The flood, following Hurricane Floyd, created all sorts of problems, Harrell said.

"We had the most trouble dealing with the river," he said, recalling there were "150 people we rescued from that flood. We really got by by the skin of our teeth."

Sabrina Kelly Cummings was among those who benefited from the department's service during the flood. On Saturday, she stopped by the open house to acknowledge its efforts.

She said she lived at the end of Bryan Blvd. at the time, near what is now Busco Beach. As the flood waters began to rise, her landlord assured them the house wouldn't flood.

It didn't. But the fire department had to evacuate the area.

"We were out for about two weeks," Ms. Cummings said. "The water didn't go down and I had to call the fire department and say, 'My house is not flooded and I need to go in for my daughter's birthday' -- she was going to be 8 -- all her supplies were in the house, plates, streamers, balloons."

The department responded to her plight, taking her in on a pontoon boat to retrieve the needed items.

She later returned home, where she lived for another two years. While the bulk of that neighborhood no longer exists, her former house still stands and is currently occupied. But at the time, despite reassurances to the contrary, it was admittedly difficult to be evacuated.

"It was so scary. I worried a lot because everything I owned was in that house," she said.

And even though the county has not experienced another flood like that since, Harrell said it provided a valuable lesson in emergency preparedness.

"That's how we have come up with all this stuff," he said, gesturing to a fleet of rescue vehicles parked behind the fire station.

Among the most visible has been the Arr-Mac Water Response Team, established in 2005 after the department teamed with the Fire Department. Mar Mac also has educated swift water teams, a certified search and rescue team, a flood water team and ATV team.

"We have the most equipment of all in the county and any other county from here to the coast," he said.

There have been numerous opportunities to put the training, and the equipment, to use, both in and out of the area. Harrell said the Arr-Mac Water Response Team especially has been called upon by other counties to assist in rescue efforts.

It's also a busy department locally. All told, he said, the department responds to an average of 500 calls a year.

And yet, while most fire fighters, especially volunteer ones, might start slowing down and consider retirement, the average age of those at Mar Mac are in their 40's.

"If you're still fighting fires, every one is a little different," Harrell said. "But 20 years, it really goes by fast.

"The specialty teams are what keeps you here. You don't want to leave."

Beyond the brick and mortar building and all the awards the department has received over the years, though, the thing the chief is perhaps most proud is a monument that surrounds the flagpole in front of the station. The memorial was placed there in 2004.

Etched on the face of five stone pieces are the names of former fire fighters who served, retired or have died, some in the line of duty.

"A lot of people know about that up and down the East coast," Harrell said. "I've had even young (firefighters) say they know what an honor it is to have your name on that monument."