By Kim Lewicki and Brian O’Shea
The Highlands Fire & Rescue’s recently hired five, full-time employees were introduced and pinned at the October Town Board meeting.
Pictured at the top of the article are the five, full-time HF&R officers who were pinned at October’s Town Board meeting. From left are Asst. Chief Robbie Forrester and Chief Ryan Gearhart from left are: Lt. Jeff Burnette, FF Clay Gibson, LT Matt Pruett, FF Jacob Pressler and LT Travis Brooks.
Chief Ryan Gearhart introduced each of them, outlining their credentials, their past work history and families.
After the ceremony, Mayor Pat Taylor reiterated the importance of having full-time firefighters.
“You full-time firefighters are critical concerning all you do and have had to do and how you respond, including your response to the terrible situation last night,” said the mayor referring to the early morning Oct. 19 accident on Satulah Ridge and Wilson roads. (See story on page
Gearhart said the full-time, paid firefighters are on three shifts – A, B, and C – which designate the time of day or night they are on duty.
On A-shift is Lt. Travis Brooks who hails from Staten Island, NY and is the son of a retired Staten Island firefighter. He moved to Highlands eight years ago.
Brooks was a volunteer with HF&R for six years, holding the rank of lieutenant two of those years. He was also a paid employee of the Sylva Fire Department for a year after completing the Cleaveland County fire academy earning his Level 2 Firefighter and Haz Mat certification. He has also completed the Basic EMT program at SCC.
Also, on the A-shift is firefighter Jacob Pressler who grew up in Cashiers. He has five years of fire service under his belt and will soon be a Level 2 Firefighter and plans to complete EMT basic training soon.
On the B-shift is Matt Pruett who grew up in Franklin. He has 15 years of fire service both as a volunteer and a paid employee.
He is a Level 1 Fire Instructor, a Level 2 Firefighter, has been a paramedic for five years and has worked with Macon County EMS since 2011.
Also, on the B-shift is firefighter Clay Gibson who was born and raised in Franklin. He has tallied eight years of fire service work and will soon be a Level 2 Firefighter. He plans on completing EMT basic training, soon.
On the C-shift is Lt. Jeff Burnette. He was born in Highlands and grew up in Glenville. He has 17 years in fire service between NC and GA. He was a paramedic for Glenville-Cashiers Rescue from 1998-2006.
He is a Level 1 and Level 2 Firefighter, a Fire Officer 1, and completed EMT basic training.
Chief Ryan Gearhart said the department can’t do without and is lucky to have its volunteers and now paid, full-time firefighters.
HFR began staffing two on-duty firefighters 24/7 at the new station on June 29.
HFR Firefighters Travis Brooks and Jacob Pressler worked the first shift and said departments are making the transition to staffing fulltime firefighters throughout the area, including stations in Cashiers, Sylva, and Cullowhee.
Brooks said having firefighters on duty 24/7 means they can receive a call while sound asleep and be in the truck and out the door in under two minutes. He added that when a call is received there are both flashing lights and audible alarms to wake them up.
“When we get a page, it automatically sounds bells and turns on lights, and of course our radios and pagers will be going off,” he said. “It’s not something you sleep through.”
Brooks said having the station staffed 24/7 does not alleviate the need for volunteer firefighters.
“It’s very important that we maintain our volunteer base because we can’t do our job without them,” he said. “Can’t do it with just two people.”
Fulltime firefighters work in shifts that most people are not accustomed to, 48 hours on duty and 96 hours off.
Pressler said working two days consecutively and having four days off works well for him.
“I don’t mind the 48/96, having four days off gives me time to unwind and connect with my family,” he said.
How do firefighters spend that time? Brooks said fighting fires is a small percentage of what fulltime firefighters do, it’s an important part, but there is a lot more to it. This includes responding to medical and rescue calls, training, and maintenance on equipment, property, and the new building.
“We protect lives and we protect property, in that order,” he said. “We have a lot of expensive equipment to maintain and we train, fulltime firefighters train a lot.”
Brooks added that HFR will also use this opportunity for more proactive community outreach.
“We look forward to serving the community in other avenues, not just responding to fire calls,” he said. “We want to put more of an effort into fire/life safety initiatives.”
Some of these initiatives include fire drills, alarm checks, and fire extinguisher education.
“We’re looking for different avenues to educate people about fire/life safety,” said Brooks. “It’s often focused on children, but they’re not the only at-risk population. Sometimes adults need a reminder too.”
Brooks has been volunteering at HFR for over six years and recently left a position as a Captain at the Sylva Fire Department to work in Highlands.
“I think it’s great to come back and serve the community where I first began volunteering,” he said.
Pressler is a graduate of the Blue Ridge Early College Fire Academy and Southwestern Community College.
He is a volunteer in the Cashiers-Glenville Volunteer Fire Department and is no stranger to responding to calls in the area.
“I’m excited because I’m starting my career and helping my community,” he said. “I’m a part of something Highlands has never had before, part of something big.”