Wilmington Fire Department reflects on 125 years of being a career organization

Wilmington Fire (Photo: Sydney Bouchelle/WWAY)

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of the Wilmington Fire Department becoming a career organization.

The department became a career organization on December 1, 1897. However, fire service in the city had existed long before.

At the time, the city hired 30 firefighters to serve three fire stations. There were three steam engines, three hose reels, and one hook and ladder company.

125 years later, the city has nine, going on 10, stations and more than 200 employees. There are eight engines, four ladder trucks, one heavy rescue, and several support vehicles.

As of this year, Wilmington Fire Department has joined the ranks of the top 1% of fire departments in the country with an ISO Class One Rating.

“It’s a badge of honor,” Fire Chief Steve Mason said. “We have an excellent fire department, we provide a fantastic service to the public but we also receive a tremendous amount of support from the public.”

Unfortunately, not all 125 years of the department’s history are filled with triumphs. When it became a career organization in 1897, African-Americans made up more than half of the department’s staff. The following year, the infamous 1898 Coup D’etat happened.

“Following the coup in 1898, all of those 18 firefighters, the African-American ones, were all laid off simply for the color of their skin,” Mason said.

Chief Mason says it was around 70 years before another Black firefighter worked for the department. In the 1980s, the department hired its first women. One of those women was Cassandra Sidberry, who became the first-ever African-American female captain in the department.

“Over the last 10 years, we put forth a very concerted effort to try to recruit a more diverse workforce,” Mason said. “Anybody in the community, if they’re in our community and they want to consider a career in this organization, they need to see somebody that’s doing it.”

Someone who is doing it — Captain Bryant Plummer. An African-American firefighter who has been with the department for more than 20 years.

“There are so few African-American firefighters, I feel like I need to be visible in my community,” Plummer said. “I think it does something for the community to see one of us get out of the truck in a leadership position.”

Newcomer Dani Tridico is also breaking the mold. She joined the department one year ago and she says she doesn’t feel like a minority amongst what feels like a big family.

“Diversity in language, gender, and culture makes us more capable to respond to different types of emergencies as our community grows,” Tridico said. “We have so many people moving and migrating to Wilmington and that diversity in population needs to be reflected in their civil services as well.”

Chief Mason says a lot of good work has been done, but they still have a long way to go.

“What I hope for the next 125 years is we figure out how we can take those resources that we have and use them to help the community in more ways than just showing up when someone has a heart attack, or a car wreck or their house is on fire,” Mason said. “How do we figure out how to get into the community?”

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