Bryan Dunn has not been chief for 20 years, when the Harrisburg Fire Department began transitioning from an all-volunteer to a nearly all-paid emergency response outfit, though it certainly feels that way.
He possesses a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the department he has led since May 1, 2004, when he replaced Charles “Chuck” Greene, who holds the distinction of being the rescue outfit’s first paid fire chief. Chief Dunn is familiar with department history, sharing that it was established in 1954 and that the original firehouse was located on Highway 49, next door to where Harrisburg Hardware now stands.
He is also well aware of the growing demand on his rescue squad, which today boasts 42 full-time firefighters stationed at three firehouses – including two built over the past three years on Rocky River Road – and responded to more than 3,500 fire, accident and medical emergency calls last year.
Harrisburg’s population has swelled from about 5,000 to more than 17,000 during his 20-year tenure with the department, and Chief Dunn points out that the demand for fire and emergency medical personnel extends beyond the town’s official boundaries.
“What a lot of people forget is that the Harrisburg Fire District encompasses more than just the town limits,” says Chief Dunn, adding that it also provides mutual aid to neighboring communities, including the cities of Concord, Kannapolis and even Charlotte.
“We actually protect a lot of the rural areas [in unincorporated Harrisburg], so you can tack on another 6,000 people that our fire department actually services,” he continued. “So, you’re really looking at 23,000 people that the fire department has to provide service for.”
Adjusting To Growth
And those numbers are continuing to climb, forcing Chief Dunn and his officers to request from the town, and in 2017 secure, the hiring of three additional firefighters, with plans to possibly add three more in 2020.
The continuing residential growth – he points to the pending construction of several new subdivisions within his jurisdiction – has also prompted discussions with town officials about the potential future relocation of the main firehouse.
Constructed in 1987, the main firehouse sits on Morehead Road and is a stone’s throw from Highway 49, a critical intersection that often proves difficult to navigate due to heavy traffic. That challenge has prompted the fire chief and his crew to begin investigating other properties on which to possibly construct a new firehouse. He declined to identify them, explaining that he does not want to compromise potential future negotiations, but stressed that the main firehouse cannot be located too far from the heart of Harrisburg.
Included in the town’s 10-year capital plan, the projected $12 million expenditure will be Chief Dunn’s primary focus over the next few years, and one the 52-year-old wants to have settled before eventually retiring. He notes that another option could be to rebuild the main firehouse at its current location, though that would not resolve the traffic issue.
“We’re contemplating do we stay here … or try to identify some other parcels that might be better, offering more room and safer access to Highway 49,” he says. “Morehead and 49 is tough. Cars block the road in front of the firehouse. And the intersection itself is a tough to work your way through during an emergency.”
He points to the openings of Fire Station 3 in 2016, and Fire Station 2 this spring, as examples of necessary and well-planned additions to meet growing demand for fire and rescue services. Plans for Station 2, which replaced an older building on the same road, date back to 2005, a year before the fire department’s reins were handed over to the town (www.justoutsidetheloop.com/2019/05/29/officials-cut-ribbon-on-new-station-2-firehouse).
“I’m really proud of where we are today because again, if you look back at ‘05 when we bought that land where Station 2 is today, we got that right,” Chief Dunn said. “Where we put Station 3, I think we got that right. New development is going to be over in that direction.”
Tracing Back To Boone
Chief Dunn acknowledges that his sales background, combined with his business education, aren’t the typical one-two punch for fire chiefs. Still, he says he’s always possessed a desire to serve his community, explaining that his family moved to the Charlotte area when he was 6 months old.
Though he often thought about volunteering, Chief Dunn did not begin his fire rescue service career until he was a junior attending Appalachian State University. He and another fraternity brother joined the Boone Fire Department on October 1, 1988, earning $8 per call at the time.
“There were some full-time folks, and they had a pay-per-call system for volunteers,” Chief Dunn says. “They ran about 800 to 900 calls a year at the time, though I couldn’t make all of them.”
He would earn his bachelor’s degree in business the following year, but knew back then that he didn’t want to spend his life sitting behind a desk. After holding a few sales positions, and opening and running a packaging and janitorial supply business for seven years with one of his older brothers, Chief Dunn had reached a career crossroads.
They sold the business in 1997, about a year after Chief Dunn began volunteering with the Harrisburg Fire Department. Prior to joining, he had spent several years in the neighboring Newell Fire Department, before it was annexed by the Charlotte Fire Department. He drove an ambulance for about three years, and soon began working as a paid driver for what is now known as the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.
“I was 30 years old and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalled.
Harrisburg Fire Department began hiring part-time employees to drive its ambulance around that time, a trend that would soon cross over to the firefighting side.
Chief Dunn and nine others – including current Battalion Chief Brad Christopher and Logistics Officer Steven Gill – made Harrisburg history on July 1, 1999. It was on that day that they were hired as the fire department’s first paid full-time firefighters, and began working alongside a handful of part-timers brought on a few years earlier and roughly two dozen volunteers.
The arrival of Chief Dunn and the others marked the end of a tradition that had stood since the 1954 establishment of the then-appropriately named Harrisburg Volunteer Fire Department. “We’re the long-timers,” Chief Dunn says, referring to Mr. Christopher and Mr. Gill.
Chief Dunn would serve on a truck for less than a year when then-Chief Greene recognized his business management skills, and recruited him to help with the budget, scheduling and other day-to-day firehouse operations. Though he still responded to calls, Chief Dunn’s primary responsibilities fell to administration.
“That was tough for me because I really wanted to be on the truck for a while, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t responded to calls or helped people or done it in some capacity,” he says. “I just hadn’t done it for very long.”
Still, his experience would put him at the top of the list when the department’s former Board of Directors began its search for a new fire chief in early 2004.
The Town Transition
Chief Dunn’s background would prove valuable when Harrisburg’s steady residential growth and other demands – individuals simply had less free time to volunteer due to family and work responsibilities – forced the hand of the department’s Board of Directors.
Similar strains, coupled with competition from the higher paying Charlotte Fire Department, would prompt board members to meet with the Town Council and request that the municipality take over operation of the fire department.
After roughly a year of meetings and the crunching of numbers, the Harrisburg Fire Department officially became a municipal-run outfit on July 1, 2006.
“It was a pretty big deal at the time,” Chief Dunn says. “The town probably had less than 50 employees total then, and it was taking on the fire department.”
With a reliable taxing base in place, fire officials were in a better position to attract and retain employees. Harrisburg and most of its neighboring departments had a hard time retaining firefighters, with most of those leaving signing up with the traditionally higher-paying Charlotte Fire Department.
Recent changes made by Town Council leveled the playing field a bit, and Harrisburg’s firefighters now start with a base salary of $36,500, or roughly $5,000 less than Charlotte.
“I’m very pleased that the Town Council put that in place,” Chief Dunn said. “That’s absolutely huge. That puts the Harrisburg Fire Department, from a starting pay perspective, above everyone else in the immediate area outside of Charlotte.”
As new paid firefighters continued to be added, the number of volunteers began to dwindle and, today, only two remain: John Lomonaco and Richard Mauney.
“They’ve been volunteering for the past 30 years,” Chief Dunn said. “They’re the last of the Mohicans.”
The Road Ahead
Looking forward, the chief is focusing on building staffing levels, explaining that he would prefer to have three more firefighters, or one per truck, on duty at all times. To meet current staffing needs, Chief Dunn says he’s about a half-dozen firefighters short of his ideal staffing level, though he is quick to point out that it is a moving number due to the area’s constant growth.
“We know that more houses are coming, which equates to more people, and more people generate more calls,” he says.
Chief Dunn remains thankful for the Town Council’s response to his department’s immediate needs, including staffing retainment, and its willingness to discuss more longer-term plans, namely the eventual need for a new main firehouse.
He also thinks his department is on solid footing, pointing to the dedication and quality of service offered by his crew members.
“All of the battles that we’ve had for the last 10 or 12 years with the funding levels that we’ve needed, I think the fire department itself is in a great position right now and has the infrastructure in place to be able to serve the citizens for many years to come,” he says.