As the town of Davidson searched for a new part-time fire chief this spring, all paths led to Bo Fitzgerald, a longtime volunteer and former chief who knows the town and firefighting as well as anyone around.
And that’s important, town officials say, because one of the new chief’s main challenges will be to help figure out how to improve fire service in the growing, but still underserved, east Davidson.
Fitzgerald has been volunteering since he was a freshman at Davidson College nearly 20 years ago and was eager for the job. “This town really has been such a big part of my life. I can trace a lot of who I am back to my time at Davidson. I felt a sense of duty to stay here and help as much as I could,” he said.
Davidson Town Commissioner Stacey Anderson, who lives in the River Run neighborhood in east Davidson, said Fitzgerald won the job over an out-of-state candidate. “I preferred Bo because of his experience in town,” she said.
Fire service in Davidson – and many of the area’s other small towns – has evolved since Fitzgerald first joined the department, adapting to a decline in volunteers, a growing population and growing demands on first responders.
This year, Davidson firefighters will handle close to 1,500 calls, up from 272 calls in 1997, one of Fitzgerald’s first years as a volunteer. Call volume has grown especially quickly since 10 years ago, when firefighters became the first responders on medical calls, as well as fires.
A year ago, Davidson eliminated volunteers and switched to staffing by paid part-timers – many who work during time off from full-time jobs with other area departments.
With the end of the volunteer department, Fitzgerald, 38, is the first Davidson fire chief hired by town leaders, instead of being elected by his volunteer colleagues, as he was when he served as chief in 2006-09.
Fitzgerald will be working two jobs. He’s a full-time captain at Charlotte Fire Department’s Station 5, on the west side of uptown Charlotte. In Davidson, he’ll work 25 to 30 hours a week with an annual salary of $32,500, fitting in meetings and other duties on his days off from Charlotte.
At his side, he’ll have three experienced deputy chiefs – Joel Cherry, Ryan Monteith and Will Keller – of whom he says: “Any one of those three could run the department.”
Fitzgerald’s role will be as much about planning as day-to-day responses. He’s already been working with Town Manager Leamon Brice and other staff on how the department will grow.
“There are several options that have been talked about,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to figure out how to put a second station in our area.”
Response times are a major issue. “The travel times are not what we want them to be. There are parts of our jurisdiction that take 10 minutes to get to,” he said. He’d like to cut response times in half, he said.
Commissioner Anderson said that with thousands of existing homes in River Run, Summers Walk and other neighborhoods, and another 300 planned at Davidson East, off N.C. 73, fire service in east Davidson is the top priority.
Eventually, there could be 1,500 homes in the area. “That’s a lot of houses with sparse protection,” Anderson said.
Davidson currently contracts with Odell Volunteer Fire Department in Concord to help on east side fire and emergency calls, but that’s considered a stop-gap arrangement. For years, the town has been studying how and where to build a new multimillion-dollar station on the east side. That’s still a long-term goal, but the town is examining a variety of medium-term options, Fitzgerald said:
▪ Putting a staffed engine company at Odell’s Station 2, off Shiloh Church Road, which is currently not staffed. Davidson has been negotiating with the town of Kannapolis on sharing the cost of firefighters, but Anderson said salary differences between the two towns have been a stumbling block.
▪ Building a temporary station with a single fire truck and staff somewhere near River Run. “The idea would be to stave off having to build a multimillion-dollar station (right away),” Fitzgerald said.
▪ Working with nearby Huntersville and/or Cornelius to build a jointly-staffed station in the N.C. 73 area, where the three town borders meet.
▪ Replacing the current station at Town Hall with a new central station elsewhere in town.
Among the other issues he’ll face is a proposal to add sleeping quarters at the current station, to improve response times. Firefighters currently sleep at an apartment nearby, but it takes about four minutes to run across a couple of town parking lots to get to the station. Even those precious minutes could make a difference to a resident having a heart attack or a fire on the east side of town. But that’s currently on hold while the town considers the future of Town Hall as part of a potential downtown redevelopment called the “catalyst project.”
Anderson is glad the town now has a permanent chief. “The town’s hit a critical mass. It’s good to have a chief part-time, with a committed number of hours, who’ll be able to help us with more of a long-term strategy,” she said.
David Boraks is a freelance writer: email@example.com
Age: 38. Born in Robbinsville, in Graham County
Family: Wife Ada Fitzgerald, who owns Main Street Books in Davidson, and two children
Career: Has served 16 years at Charlotte Fire Department, now a captain at Station 5 and formerly a Charlotte Fire training officer. New part-time fire chief in Davidson.
How he became a firefighter: “My dad’s entire family were Methodist preachers. I assumed that was what I was going to do. I got here (to Davidson College) and joined the Fire Department on a whim and a little bit of boredom. Near the end of my college career, it hit me that I really enjoyed what I was doing.” He started volunteering with the Davidson Fire Department near the end of his freshman year and “I’ve been on ever since.”