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City bids farewell to fire chief

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Rocky Mount Fire Chief Mike Varnell, right, talks to Chancey and Brenda Hill Thursday at his retirement party at the Rocky Mount Mills.

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BY LINDELL JOHN KAY
Staff Writer

Monday, March 25, 2019

Retirement is bittersweet for Rocky Mount Fire Chief Mike Varnell.

The city threw Varnell a big farewell party Thursday attended by colleagues and old friends like former City Manager Charles Penny and Assistant City Manager Tasha Logan Ford.

But the fanfare was over Friday morning as Varnell sat in his half empty office with boxes of memories in every corner.

"I will miss this place," Varnell said. "Especially the people. The team."

Varnell planned to finish cleaning out his office over the weekend and be gone by today.

He took a minute Friday to look back over his long career and contemplate about what's ahead for the department he loves.

Joining the department in October 1989, Varnell was promoted to captain, battalion chief and assistant chief before becoming chief in 2015.

Varnell is most proud of the department's fourth accreditation. Only 265 fire departments in the world have earned the coveted accredited status with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Less than 25 departments have been accredited four times.

"It's harder every time," Varnell said. "They're constantly raising the bar."

Varnell has hired 47 firefighters and promoted 40 more — a third of the department.

Varnell said criticism about a perceived lack of diversity in the department is unfair. The national average is 8.4 percent. The state average is 9.5 percent. Rocky Mount has a diversity percentage of 22 percent, second only to Winston-Salem, which is headed by Trey Mayo, a former Rocky Mount fire chief who Varnell served under as assistant chief.

The 22 percentile would be higher if only available workforce numbers were used in the formula.

"The total population is used in those numbers," Varnell said. "But we can only employ a certain age bracket. Children and the elderly can't be firefighters, so it's unfair to use those whole population (totals) in these calculations."

Just about everyone who lived in the Twin Counties in 1999 has Hurricane Floyd memories, with Varnell being no different.

"I was off when it started," Varnell said. "I came into work and worked five endless days."

Varnell remembered performing water rescues and finding a structure fire on Shepard Drive.

"I might be one of the only firefighters in Rocky Mount to fight a fire from a boat," he said.

Eighty percent of what the department does now are EMS calls. Varnell said the save rate used to be in single digits and is now 20. When it comes to fires, the property save rate is 95.

"We keep fires to room of origin," Varnell said. "Someone is looking at a kitchen remodel instead of a totaled house, which could mean a move to Wilson."

The worse residential fire Varnell remembers was in 1993.

"There were four kids in the house," Varnell said. "We managed to save all four. They're still alive today. Two or three minutes difference and they wouldn't have made it. They wouldn't be around today. Buildings can be replaced; people can't."

Varnell, an Edgecombe County native, isn't heading out to pasture. He has a job lined up with a consulting firm in which he will help fire departments across the state with planning and training. In a way, Varnell will continue to do what he's been doing for decades: Mentoring the next generation of firefighters, just on a larger scale.

One thing Varnell wanted to see through before retiring was the improvement of the city's already exceptional ISO rating. Varnell said he was going to stick it out until then, but the state said it could be another year before the review.

ISO ratings are important because the better the rating, the lower insurance rates become with 1 being the best on a scale of 1 to 9.

Rocky Mount is at 2, but Varnell said he thinks the department can reach 1 — under the right leadership.

Just like Varnell was assistant chief under Mayo, Ronnie Raper has been the assistant chief under Varnell.

"He's also been chief," Varnell said. "Back when I had surgery, he was interim chief for three months. He would do an excellent job as chief."

Raper will serve again as interim fire chief after Varnell's departure.

That kind of experience will be important during the ISO rating review, Varnell said.

It's also important the next chief hold the bar on code enforcement.

"Everyone wants a favor," Varnell said. "You have to stick to the code and be consistent."

The surgery Varnell mentioned was for colorectal cancer.

"I've been clean for 20 months," Varnell said. "I have a scan coming up in April. The doctors do one every four months just to be sure. I had a 50/50 shot. I'm on the good side of that."

Varnell said he's keenly aware that firefighters often face the danger of burning buildings, but they have another enemy to their health in cancer — the leading cause of death among firefighters nationwide.

"We wash our gear after every fire," Varnell said. "It used to be that if you have three fires in a day, you were putting on that same soiled gear each time."

The department also uses disposable headliners meant to fight thyroid cancer.

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