Lake Norman & Mooresville

Jim Barbee, longtime Cornelius fire chief steps down

Firefighters are often able to put in their years, retire at a relatively young age and start a new career.

Jim Barbee did it the other way around.

When Barbee, 61, steps down June 30 as chief of the Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department, it will mark the end of his second career.

Barbee, a Cornelius resident since 1984, first served as a Cornelius volunteer firefighter in the late 1980s while working at Duke Energy. That came to an end when the demands of family and work left him with little extra time.

When his only child, Guerry, graduated from high school in 1997, everything changed.

“I’m sitting around the house by myself,” he said, recalling the suddenly empty nest. “So I figured I’d go down to the fire station and sign up.”

When Barbee retired from Duke in 2003 as a materials coordinator, his early experience as a volunteer firefighter opened the door to that second career. In 2004, Barbee joined the Concord Fire Department as a full-time firefighter. He retired in March as an engine captain after 11 years.

In 2006, several Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department members approached Barbee about being a candidate in the next election for fire chief. Like most of the fire departments around Lake Norman, the independent, mostly-volunteer department holds an election for chief every year.

“So I did,” Barbee recalled. “I ran unopposed. I don’t guess anyone else wanted the job.”

Barbee has held the job ever since. He announced his resignation as chief in a brief but emotional speech to the Cornelius Town Board on June 16.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ for the opportunity,” Barbee told commissioners. “There have been a few times that we’ve locked horns, as everybody has a tendency to agree to disagree on occasion. But for the most part, it has really been a pleasure, and I want to thank you all for the privilege of serving this town.”

Barbee said in an interview that he made the difficult decision to step down so he could care for his wife, Rebecca, who suffered a stroke last September.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a Barbee influence at Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department come July 1. Barbee says he plans to stick around as a volunteer, which means he could end up taking orders from Guerry, who followed his father into the family business and now is a deputy chief at Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department while working full-time with the Charlotte Department, where he was promoted to captain earlier this month.

Barbee said he’s not surprised by his son’s career path.

“When I was a volunteer in Cornelius in the late ’80s, he spent a lot of time in the fire station,” Barbee said. “He got bit by the firefighting bug.”

Guerry, now 37, became a junior firefighter as a teenager, a volunteer firefighter when he turned 18, and joined the Charlotte Fire Department when he was 21.

Jim Barbee said keeping pace with population and development growth continues to be Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department’s biggest challenge. In the late 1990’s, Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department responded to 700 to 800 calls a year, Barbee recalled. That all changed in 1999, when the department began answering emergency medical calls as first responders.

“Our call volume doubled overnight,” Barbee recalled.

Today, the department answers close to 2,800 calls a year from two stations, each staffed with four paid firefighters. Volunteers also respond from wherever they are at the time of the call.

“We could always use more, but the budget just doesn’t allow for that,” Barbee said.

Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department’s paid firefighters work part-time for the department while working full time in other fire departments. Barbee estimates that between their two jobs, most firefighters in members work 70 to 100 hours a week.

“That speaks volumes to their commitment to serve this community,” Barbie said.

Cornelius-Lemley Fire Department members elected Neal Smith, a 30-year veteran in Cornelius and a battalion chief at the Charlotte Fire Department, to replace Barbie.

“I feel very comfortable with Neal,” Barbie said. “He’s a smart guy.”

John Deem is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for John? Email him at john.deem@outlook.com.

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