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John Grimes: The Big-Hearted Chief at Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue

As I walk into the Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue building preparing to meet the chief, I feel a little intimidated about the man I’m about to meet. I imagine him as strict and no-nonsense because everything in the building is so spotless. The floors gleam, the windows are clear, the trucks are spit-shined and ready to go. The firefighters walk briskly through the hallways with purpose.

My notion quickly dissolves at the sight of Fire Chief John Grimes emerging from his office holding up a little navy blue “onesie” with the Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue logo printed on the front.

“Isn’t this cool?” he asks with a smile. “Sometimes I’ll be in the grocery store and see a little one with one of these on.”

Chief Grimes keeps the blue onesies in his office and gives them out any time one of his staff or volunteers has a new addition to their family.

John Grimes’ face softens and lights up when children and grandchildren are mentioned. Grimes and his wife, Diane, have three children — Avery (35), Brandy (28) and Daniel (26) — and seven grandchildren. Grimes’ screensaver at his office is a loop of pictures of his grandchildren playing on family trips or at the Grimes house in Brunswick County, and he is eager to tell anyone who visits what they are up to and how proud he is of all of them.

Grimes’ soft-hearted nature extends beyond the children in his own family. The chief keeps pictures of the children and grandchildren of many of the employees and volunteer firefighters on his desk.

“It reminds me of my responsibility to keep their parents safe while they are on the job,” he says.

Grimes, who moved to Wilmington from Lumberton at the age of 12, has been involved in firefighting for his whole career. After a six-month tenure at both Seagate Fire Department in Wilmington and the Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue, Grimes joined the Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue exclusively in 1990. Grimes joined Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue in 1990. By 1994 he had worked his way up to volunteer chief and then was able to make the transition to paid chief in 2002.

The fire department that Grimes manages has been able to do a whole lot with very limited resources. His department operates as a nonprofit organization. The department receives funding from Brunswick County, the Town of Leland and the Town of Belville.

The Leland Fire Department is one of the busiest in the area. It was the first volunteer department in the county to run 3,000 calls in a year. It provides the highest level of EMS in the state, and the firefighters are all highly trained (approximately 95 percent of their firefighters are trained as Firefighter II, have EMS basic training and Technical Rescuer certification).

Grimes is able to keep track of his emergency vehicles with high-tech assistance. From his computer or cell phone, he is able to pinpoint the location of the ambulance and track its route as it travels the local streets.

Chief Grimes also relies on the support of staff such as Assistant Chief Ronnie Hayes and Captain Chris Hunt. However, the success of the department is not solely attributable to good management by the paid staff. This department (like many others across the country) is very fortunate to have many devoted volunteers who supplement the work of the department’s 19 and a half paid staff and allow the fire department to function at such a high level. The Leland Fire Department maintains 82 volunteers.

“Our volunteer staff does all the things our paid staff does,” says Grimes.

Volunteers, such as Chris Watford, a software engineer at GE by day, add depth to the department.

“We call him ‘Doc Watford.’ The man’s like Doogie Howser,” Grimes says of Watford’s medical competency.

The department also has student volunteers. Some of the students in the Pre-Health Professional Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington fulfill their volunteer requirements, which are required by some schools prior to admission to physician’s assistant programs, at the Leland fire department.

“It helps prepare them for what they’ll experience in (medical) school,” says Grimes. “When they get there and see someone with his head cracked open they’ve already seen it before — when the wound wasn’t all cleaned and dressed.”

Over the years, the chief and his firefighters have seen some horrific things, things not fit to be mentioned in a publication such as this. The chief admits to having been brought to his knees and driven to tears for days on end. There have been times when therapists have had to come in to the station immediately after accidents to help the firefighters manage the things they experienced on the job.

But there have also been times of great joy on the job. For example, the firefighters of Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue have delivered several babies, including one in the back seat of his mother’s car, in the fire department parking lot. Every so often the mother brings her son, now age 9, by the department to express her thanks and to allow the firefighters the opportunity to see one of the people whose life was touched by their actions. Grimes’ wife, Diane, was the EMT who delivered that baby boy.

In addition to a rewarding career, Grimes also found the love of his life at the fire department on Village Road in Leland. Diane Grimes, who now serves as deputy chief and administrator, had been working at the department before John Grimes joined the department. Both went to North Brunswick High School, but they did not meet before the fire department. Diane was working at a bank and was approached by two firefighters who persuaded her to help them with their book-keeping. She volunteered to help, and now, 29 years later, she is still donating her time every week to the department.

“You really get into it, and then you say, ‘Well, when do I leave?’” says Diane.

During that 29 years Diane continued to work her full-time job and raise three children.

“A lot of times the kids had to go with me,” she says. “They’d sit in the back and do their homework. We sometimes joke that my kids have been on more calls than some of the firefighters.”

Spending a day with Chief John Grimes and his crew at Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue provides not only a good lesson in business management, but also some lessons on humanitarianism. At its core, the department consists of a group of people, chipping in, doing whatever it takes to help one another meet the challenges that face them, with an ultimate goal of making the world a safer place for their neighbors.

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