For retired Fayetteville Fire Chief Benny Nichols, December 7, 1995, was a turning point in his long career. It was the day former 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper James Burmeister, 21, killed Jackie Burden and Michael James near downtown Fayetteville. He was identified as a Neo-Nazi skinhead with a hatred for African Americans. His objective that night was to kill a couple of African-Americans.
The cold-blooded killings bothered Nichols. He wondered how he might help bring the community out of several dark years of racial discontent. Forums were organized to bring people together to discuss racial issues. “The realization back in the late ‘90s was that I could do something as an individual,” Nichols said. He was an assistant chief at the time and thought maybe he could change the relationship of the fire department with Fayetteville’s minorities.
Nichols persuaded City Council that it was long past time to build a fire station in the inner city to replace one that had been closed 20 years earlier. Fayetteville’s first black mayor, Marshall Pitts, helped cut the ribbon on the Langdon Street station two years later. Nichols called Fire Station 14 an investment in the community because it was more than a fire house. Fayetteville State University donated the property, and in return the larger-than-usual station became a community center.
As chief, Nichols made the recruitment of minorities a priority for the fire department. His vision was a course of study at E.E. Smith High School that would encourage young African-Americans to consider a career in the
fire service. Then Smith Principal Rene Corders was one of Nichols’ enthusiastic supporters. The program took hold also at Fayetteville Technical Community College and Fayetteville State University. The objective was a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science.
Fire Station 14 was also an extension of academia, or would have been had the concept succeeded. It was built with coed dormitories and classrooms for interns who could actually live the life of firefighters as they studied. But with the turn of the decade and the advent of Internet studies, that portion of the concept fizzled. And because more recently the city administration decided to revitalize city hall to make more room for offices, the fire chief and his senior staff were moved to station 14. The classrooms and dormitory were converted into offices and the fire station lost its identity as a community center.
The joint fire academy is ongoing; however, with online studies being an integral part of the curriculum at several Cumberland County high schools. Did Nichols’ concept invigorate the recruitment of young African Americans? No, but it wasn’t because the fire department didn’t give it a try. So why aren’t minority students interested in becoming firefighters? “I wish I had the answer to that,” Nichols said. Fire Chief Ben Major echoes Nichols’ frustration. “It’s easy not to be interested in what you don’t know much about,” said Major. He tells Up & Coming Weekly that he makes it a point to be seen at events in the black community. “They need to see me,” he noted. Major is one of only a dozen or so African-Americans among the city’s 331 firefighters. The department doesn’t have a full-time recruiter like the police department does. Major has asked for one over the last couple of years, but has been denied by City Council.
For his efforts, the Nancy Susan Reynolds Foundation awarded Nichols a $25,000 grant to begin a scholarship for students interested in fire service studies. The Cumberland Community Foundation administers the scholarship, which has grown to a fund of $30,000. It’s up to school administrators and guidance counselors to make pupils aware of the fund. Unlike the police department, turnover isn’t a problem for the FFD. Remarkably there are no vacancies on the department. There’s a generational kinship among fathers and sons, and that too impacts efforts to diversify the department, and not just in Fayetteville. It’s “become a major conversation among fire chiefs everywhere,” Major said.