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Ben Smith was a 17-year-old Beddingfield High School student when he became a junior firefighter with the East Nash Volunteer Fire Department. Thirty-one years later, he’s hung up his gear and retired as a deputy chief for Wilson Fire/Rescue Services.
“I first got involved in the fire service as a volunteer member in Wilson County,” Smith said. “It is a passion or a love that gets a hold of you and won’t let up.”
Smith graduated from high school in June 1989 and in less than a year, he was a paid firefighter with the city of Wilson.
“The fire academy didn’t exist back then. I was getting training with East Nash while working at a local grocery store and taking classes at Wilson Community College for an associate degree in fire protection technology,” he recalled. “I started that in the summer of 1989, and I was blessed to get offered a job that I started in February 1990.”
As training and certifications through the state improved, the teenage Smith took classes alongside veteran firefighters. He actually went to a two-week rookie school with others new to the fire service about eight months into his career.
Smith quickly moved up the ladder, shifting from fighting the fires firsthand to taking on leadership roles within the department.
“It is one thing to be on the nozzle, a part of a search team or a ventilation team and processing everything around you. You can see the smoke, feel the heat and read the conditions, putting a visual relationship to the scene,” he said. “But when you’re sitting out and in charge of the team, working to develop a plan and sending others in to a scene to implement that plan, it is a totally different feeling. The stress level is so much higher when you know you’re sending someone else into harm’s way and their safety is in your hands.”
Throughout his career, Smith’s family was integral to balancing the daily stresses of the job with a personal life. He married wife Christie on Sept. 11, 1994, and they have two kids, 22-year-old Anna and 16-year-old Benjamin.
The separation of personal and professional lives hasn’t always been easy, though, as his wife worked as a 911 operator as one of her first full-time jobs.
“We have an emergency retreat tone that sounds to order everyone out of an unsafe scene,” Smith said. “My wife was working the night that sounded, and I was one of the firefighters who was ordered out.”
While his wife went on to become a nurse, Smith’s sister-in-law was on duty in the 911 center when a tree came down on a truck he was in during Hurricane Irene.
“I knew she’d hear the call because we had to call for backup. My driver and I were OK, but the first thing I did was pick up a phone and call,” he said. “Social media and the rumor mill are not going to tell my wife first or the family of any of our crews. They will hear from us first because family support is huge in the fire service.”
Smith said he’ll miss fellow firefighters who have become as close to him as family.
“I may still pursue an activity in the fire service or volunteer, but the people who work in this organization are my family,” he said last week. “We actually just talked about it this morning because this is not a divorce. This is a new chapter in my life, and I’m still in the community and these people are still my family.”