Clayton Fire Chief Receives North Carolina Fire Chief Of The Year Award

The North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs has named Clayton Fire Chief Lee Barbee as the 2018 North Carolina Fire Chief of the Year. Chief Barbee is the longest serving Fire Chief in the history of the Town of Clayton.

Surrounded by family, including his wife, Donna, sonTyler, daughter-in-law Haley and first granddaughter Rylee, plus his 3 Battalion Chiefs, Barbee accepted the award, the most prestigious award given by the association. The award recognizes truly outstanding fire chiefs whose actions and leadership in their profession, home, community and country, serve as an example and challenge for all other chief fire executives throughout the southeast.

As a young boy in the 60’s, Lee Barbee dreamed of being a firefighter. It was the heady days of firefighting – where the paycheck was non-existent and protection was a thin canvas coat, a heavy leather helmet and a breathing mask was pulling your shirt over your nose as you entered a burning building. Lured by the challenge, but mostly driven by a desire to help his community, Barbee joined the rural Clayton Fire Department in 1975 at the age of 18. Little did he know how much he would touch that community and irrevocably change the course of firefighting in his tiny hometown.

In a span of more than 4 decades, Barbee worked his way up from firefighter, to driver, to Rural Captain to the Town of Clayton’s first full-time and longest-serving Fire Chief. In 1999, without an office in the damp, dingy basement of town hall where his aging fire apparatus were housed, Barbee set out, undeterred, to build the premiere fire department his town deserved.

In the past 4 decades, Barbee has taken the fractured town and rural firefighters that served the town and outlying areas and transformed Clayton Fire into an organized, seamless team of part- and full-time personnel. They are the highest trained in the county and continue to strive to provide the public with the safest, most efficient fire protection possible.

Barbee recognized the inevitable end to the reliance on volunteers, but refused to abandon firefighting’s “volunteer” roots. Although many doubted he would succeed and even stood in his way, Barbee engineered a way to continue to incorporate the integral citizen base of part-time firefighters and created a hybrid part/full-time system that to this day provides the best response time in Clayton’s history.

“Lee has been through many hard times and much heartbreak getting Clayton Fire Department where it is today,” says Duke Hockaday, a retired fellow firefighter. “Few know how far Clayton Fire Department has come.”

Despite budgetary restraints, Barbee personally oversaw the relocation and building of a new main fire station downtown and a second fire station to accommodate the exponential growth of the area. He was present every single day of construction, utilizing his background in construction and landscaping to ensure the facility was built to the highest operational standards.

The contractor for the job said he had never enjoyed such a relationship with a client – savoring Barbee’s background in construction, his ability to spot problems and his willingness to sit down to discuss solutions and compromise.

When faced with funding limits, Barbee would practice patience – making the most of what he had while assuring disappointed staff that with perseverance and quiet persistence equipment and improvements would come.

When the second station could only be built with bays and a small office, Barbee saw through plans to build living quarters and other amenities for his staff.

Barbee has expertly utilized grant money – securing a federal SAFER grant to increase the number of trained front line firefighters for the community and equipped the Town with an ATV to help response to brush files and the miles of new remote greenways in Town.

His dream of upgrading the department with a ladder truck has still not fizzled, as Barbee holds out that grant money will make that asset a reality. Chief Barbee refuses to waiver from his long-term goals for the department.

Barbee has coordinated response to major incidents including flooding and severe damage from Hurricane Fran in 1996, a large downtown business fire in 2001, a large-scale industrial fire in 2005, and a plane crash into a busy lunch-hour McCall’s restaurant in 2007.

Barbee graduated from Clayton High School in June of 1974 and his extensive education as a firefighter began immediately after graduation. In the 70’s and early 80’s, Barbee would participate in training meetings held in the frozen winter fire bays where instructors had to compete with the noise of a single heater fan hung from the ceiling.

In the late 80’s when the NCDOI Office of State Fire Marshal began looking at Firefighter Certification Programs, Barbee bucked the naysayers who questions the change and became one of the first firefighters in Johnston County to complete the Firefighter II Certification Program. The class would be held at the Clayton Fire Department – the first time a whole certification class was offered at a department and not at the community college. His department would go on to be one of the first to enroll in the Firefighter III certification, again agreeing to host the training.

In 1993, Barbee completed hazardous materials training and in 1995, he participated in and agreed to host the Emergency Vehicle Driver Certification Program. He’s also achieved certification in wildland fire suppression, incident management (Oklahoma State University) and attended all three levels of the National Fire Academy Leadership training. Recognizing the value of specialized training, Barbee initiated, participated and coordinated the first confined space (1998) and trench rescue (2004) training courses in the area. Barbee has gone through the Effective Management Program with the Institute of Government and FEMA’s Recovery and Mitigation training. He’s also achieved NIMS certification, rescue technician training and Wildland-Urban interface training.

Since joining the fire department Chief Barbee has been extremely involved in advancing the fire service and has served in numerous leadership capacities with an impressive assortment of local, state and national organizations including:  Johnston County Firemen’s Association, 1975-present; served as president of JCFA 1995 & 1996; Eastern Carolina Firemen’s Association, 1975; achieved “Lifetime Member” status in 2009; NC State Firemen’s Association, 1975-present; Johnston County Fire Chiefs’ Association, 1991 – present; North Carolina Association of Fire Chiefs, 1991 – present; served on the NCAFC Board of Directors from 1994-2003 and represented NC at meetings in Boston, MA; Fairfax, VA; Washington, DC; and Oklahoma City, OK; he also served as President of the NCAFC in 2001-2002; Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs, 1991 – present; International Association of Fire Chiefs, 1991–present; Johnston Community College staff member for the 71st Annual Fire College; served as Safety Officer, 1998-1999; Johnston County Fire Training Advisory Committee, 1998–2001; Active participant in the North Carolina Fallen Firefighters Foundation {NCFFF], 2000-present; served as NCFFF President 2002-2005.

As Fire Chief, Barbee put an emphasis on formal state certified training with qualified instructors. It was a personal goal of his to become certified in several capacities and it was equally important to him that CFD members had ample opportunities to participate in important training. In 2000, Barbee sat down with Town leadership and shared his vision to transform fire certification and training – a vision which would not rely on the often-costly internal six-month rookie school training that other area departments used. His plan instead would work to prepare firefighters for promotions within Clayton as well as other departments in the area by focusing on a 18-24-month training program. Chief Barbee persuaded town leaders to take on the new system and spearheaded the hiring of the town’s first full-time training officer to emphasize the importance of training.

Well, above the state standards, now part-time firefighters complete a minimum of 125 hours of training a year and full-time take on a minimum of 240 hours – ensuring that no matter what the combination of personnel, the public can rest assured that qualified, trained staff are responding to their emergencies.

All firefighters are required to obtain Firefighter I & II certifications, drivers must take Certified Driver/Operator Course and to better serve the community and the county, Barbee expanded the capability of CFD and provided training in vehicle extrication {Rescue Tech-VMR], confined space rescue, trench rescue, and rope rescue [Rescue Tech – Ropes].

Chief Barbee has strongly encouraged his personnel to embrace training, as evidenced by the fact that 12 Clayton Firefighters have now earned the North Carolina State Firefighter’s Association Advanced Firefighter Certificate. That’s almost half of the departments full-time staff.

As Robert Griffin, the Advanced Firefighter Certificate Administrator stated, “The Clayton Fire Department is the first, and so far, only department to take advantage of this level of training in rescue for the certification. My hats off to the department, its members, and Chief Barbee for actively engaging in training and in being in a very select group of individuals across the State of North Carolina in achieving this certification.”

Although Chief Barbee’s heart is obviously in the fire service, he is constantly looking for opportunities to make improvements within the community. Some of examples of this is his willingness to allow the Town’s parks and recreation department to develop a soccer field for kids behind Fire Station #2. On another recent occasion, he worked with Johnston County 911 to construct a communications tower and back-up 911 Center on another portion of CFD property. And most recently, Chief Barbee recognized the fractured supervision of special community events by the various town departments and spearheaded the launching of a new incident command system.

He rolled-out his revised system at our highly attended July 4th celebration and the annual fall Harvest & Music Festival. Not only did he work to coordinate all of the department personnel including police, Parks & Recreation, Public Work and others, he located and acquired the radios necessary to communicate, and coordinated with the County E911 operators to facilitate calls. His plan is now a successful and permanent model for all future community events.

Thanks to the community contacts he’s fostered, Chief Barbee helped to repair a strained relationship with the northern neighborhoods of Clayton with his establishment of the Community Emergency Response Team or CERT in 2006. The first graduation class in May of 2007 included 40 residents. Since then more than 175 CERT members have been trained to assist in times of community incidents or disasters. The team has done wonders to bridge communication between the town and a neighborhood that at one time felt left out. Chief Barbee knew this training would serve to encourage these participants to take a more active role in preparing their community for emergencies and that that in turn would give them a better sense of community overall. The most recent training in April 2017 involved CERT volunteers shadowing the Clayton Fire Department during a trench rescue training exercise.

In addition to Chief Barbee’s involvement in professional organizations, he has also served on various community boards and associations including: Claytex District Tax Commission Board, appointed by the County Commissioners for several terms, 1991 – 2005; local Emergency Planning Committee [LEPC] for Johnston County, he was appointed by the County Commissioners for several terms, 1998 – present; he served as President of LEPC in 2005; West Clayton Elementary School Advisory Board member, early 1990s; Cooper Elementary School Advisory Board member, mid 1990s; also served as Cooper Elementary PTA President during this time; Assistant Baseball Coach for several youth teams, 2004 – 2005; Chairman of Riverwood Homeowners’ Association Safety Committee, 2005 – present; Local Government Federal Credit Union, Triangle East Advisory Council, 2009;

Near to his heart, he has also participated, supported and provided leadership for Clayton’s 1st Annual St. Baldrick’s fundraiser event which earned more than $62,000 for childhood cancer research. His effort in promoting the event and challenging other emergency service providers [police, fire, EMS} was the key to this success which continues to this day.

Barbee does not forget how far the Clayton Fire Department has come and that’s evidenced in his generosity to fellow fire service departments. Thanks to the relationship Chief Barbee has built, Clayton enjoys great cooperation with neighboring departments, participating frequently in joint training and resource sharing.

Chief Barbee advocated to Town Council to donate the Clayton Fire Department’s Reserve Engine to Blue Jay Volunteer Fire Department in Bertie County, as the cash-strapped rural fire department struggled to pass service tests. He did this again for the Hargetts Crossroad Volunteer Fire Department in Jones County. At no cost, he delivered extrication equipment to this department to combat the high levels of car accidents in the remote back roads. Most recently Chief Barbee has reached across county boundaries to assist the fire service in Robeson County. Following Hurricane Matthew, Chief Barbee learned of the dire need of equipment in hard-hit Fairmont. The city of just 2,659 had just lost a fire engine and did not have the funding to make the repairs, let alone replace the apparatus. Meanwhile, Clayton was about to receive a new pumper tanker to replace our 1994 E-One Freightliner fire engine. Chief Barbee saw in Fairmont, a glimpse of the old Clayton Fire Department he once struggled to run, and he worked to make a request to Town Council to donate our aging truck to this needy department. Fairmont’s appreciation has been incredible. Barbee knew his department had received help over the years to overcome hurdles, and now he was giving back once again.

In his time as Chief, he also promoted the establishment of the Clayton Firefighters Association and the Clayton Fire Department Advisory Board. These active groups help provide advice, community engagement and assist with long-range planning.

Chief Barbee has been instrumental in improving the wellness, safety and effectiveness of Clayton’s firefighters. He works to ensure the fire station is their second home, promising to keep their sleeping and living quarters comfortable and well-stocked. In the 90’s, he began budgeting for annual medical physicals for all firefighters. He insures the availability of Hepatitis B vaccinations. He helped purchase physical fitness equipment for both stations. And he has established a relationship with a local doctor who, mostly pro bono, has agreed to be available to firefighters and their families whenever they have questions or needs. He led the department to establish physical fitness standards that now each member must work to meet.

You need no further proof of his dedication to the health of the men and women who serve with him than the very personal letter he shared with the ENTIRE staff of the Town of Clayton. In it he shared intimate details on his health, something he did not have to do and had not shared with anyone prior, but because he knew he might be able to reach just one person and make a difference – he sent it. It was not for his benefit, but for the good of the people he works alongside.

Lee Barbee wrote:

To all Town of Clayton Staff,

You have to do it. You just HAVE TO do it. Not because it’s required. Not because OSHA mandates it. Not because it might help bring down the Town’s premiums. You have to take advantage of the Town programs available to us that help monitor your health….FOR YOU.

Before 1997, I wasn’t caught dead in a doctor’s office. I just didn’t go. But 16 years ago, the Fire Department started doing annual physicals and I was able to start building up information on my health year to year. Last November, something in those physical results caught the eye of our Fire Department doctor, Ben Atkinson. He advised me to get tested further. And that’s how I learned in May, I have cancer.

I am telling you this for one reason – because you need to see how important an annual physical is and how much doing something, anything with the Town wellness program benefits you. Many of us trudge down to the council chambers every year to have our blood pressure checked and our cholesterol measured as if we’re just going through the motions. You NEED to review your results. You NEED to see your doctor if there are changes from year to year that are not within the normal range. I did those things and that’s why we were able to catch this cancer. Now I can go in for surgery next week, take care of this prostate cancer and get back to my family and back to the Fire Department.

I’m not saying you have to go to every basketball game or boot camp class that the town offers, but choose what level you want to participate…and just do it. Take advantage of this benefit because it’s not about the money, it’s about your health. And your health affects your family.

My surgery is scheduled for October 17, so I will be out of the office beginning Wednesday, October 16. While I’m out, Fire Marshal Tony Atkinson and Training & Safety Officer Jason Dean will assist you with any needs you have.

I’m not the only firefighter or Town of Clayton employee who’s benefited from these physicals or the wellness program and been able to catch small issues BEFORE they turned into BIG ones. Please take these programs seriously. Please. I’ll see you when I get back – minus the cancer.

Fire Chief Lee Barbee
Town of Clayton

Chief Barbee is loved. It’s as simple as that. With his quiet, contemplative yet commanding presence, Barbee is respected and revered wherever he goes…whether it’s into the fire station, into the downtown business, or into the department head meeting at Town Hall. By his side in all of those places is always his dog, a loyal and tame boxer named Lucy whom Barbee rarely leaves at home. Her presence at fire scenes has actually helped to calm inconsolable homeowners or their children and her mannered temper serves to bring a sense of east to even the tensest meetings.

Barbee is a servant – to his family first, and then to firefighting. Undeniably, his family has made sacrifices for his demanding career as chief, but his family is his life-blood and without them he knows he would have no career. He is a father of two sons and has been married to his wife, Donna, for more than 4 decades. . His son Tyler and his wife Haley just gave birth to Barbee’s first granddaughter,Rylee. While it may not be what you would expect from the leader of an organization, Barbee preaches the same values to his employees and fellow firefighters – family comes before firefighting.

A teacher, a father, and a friend are what Barbee is to the firefighters of Clayton and any other personnel that come to him. Even veteran firefighters go to Chief Barbee for advice because he is so highly respected not just as a fire chief, but as a person.

Out for several weeks recently, firefighters naturally anxiously anticipated the enjoyment of running the station “without Chief.” But in the midst of that absence, upon learning that Barbee would be dropping by for a short time, no less than 5 firefighters were standing in line waiting to consult with him for some help. “Chief, I got a question for you,” is a very common phrase when people walk into his office. “Watchya need?” is always his eager response.This happens daily and Barbee is always willing to help. The majority of times it is regard to a personal matter and Barbee is known to meet firefighters at restaurants or more likely at his home to help someone work through a tough family situation. They are truly his second family and he treats them as such.

Chief Barbee has done more to emphasize preventing fires than most other departments. He initiated open houses where families could bring children, he established fire prevention assemblies at area schools and daycares and has spear-headed other creative ways to get people interested in fire safety, like a monthly series of videos showcases new safety tips. All of the activities to educate people doesn’t come easy, and it takes a lot of planning and funding which falls back on the chief of the department.

Even though he recently went through a tough cancer surgery that still causes pain and forces him to slow down, Barbee is at work before the sun rises, late at night and on weekends. He was back on the job within two weeks of his release from the hospital and retirement is not in his vocabulary. Barbee will continue to work on helping the Town of Clayton, as he has since 1975 and his passion for the fire service will never fade. In his words, his accomplishments, in that letter about his cancer to the town staff – Chief Lee Barbee embodies the true meaning of being a firefighter – for him, it’s about others – it’s ALL about serving others.