Captain Trey Smith, a 34-year veteran of the Charlotte Fire Department, is one of the three leading company officers at NoDa’s Fire Station No. 7.
Firefighters are organized into companies assigned to the vehicles they work with. Every truck in the city, be it an engine, a ladder, or heavy rescue vehicle, is assigned three rotating shifts of firefighters, each led by their own company officer, or captain. Stations with more than one vehicle, such as Station No. 1 in uptown, are still divided into separate companies. In NoDa, Smith supervises the C-Shift, consisting of four other firefighters at our venerable old firehouse. Station No. 7 is one of 43 others within the city, which are grouped into eight battalions. Battalions are composed of five to six stations, with each group commanded by a battalion chief for each shift. Each battalion chief reports to a division chief. It sounds complicated, but basically the hierarchy is set up so that at every level, each supervisor directly oversees only a small handful of others.
A Charlotte native, Smith’s passions about firefighting took hold early. Growing up in the Sharon Road area near a volunteer fire department, he would excitedly run out to see the big red fire trucks every time he heard their sirens wail. When he was just 14 years old, Smith joined the Fire and Rescue Explorer programs, offshoots of the Boy Scouts of America, which facilitated ride-along and training programs for youths interested in first responder services. Smith recalled, “I knew immediately that was the career path I wanted to follow.”
In the mid-1980s, Smith, then a recent high school graduate, got a job in a fire extinguisher shop, enrolled in CPCC’s Fire Science program, and began working with the old Carmel Volunteer Fire Department in south Charlotte. While his girlfriend at the time encouraged these pursuits, his parents vehemently objected, instead wanting Smith to become an architect.
“They said I’d never amount to anything being a firefighter,” he recounted. “Of course, I set out to prove them wrong. I wanted to make a difference and it was my passion.”
At CPCC, chance placed Smith with a science lab partner who happened to be the head of human resources with the Charlotte Fire Department. Impressed, the veteran administrator encouraged young Smith to apply to the CFD. He was hired on his first try at around 20 years old and was subsequently assigned to the historic Myers Park Station No. 6, built in 1929.
Other stations, a myriad of experiences, and promotions would follow, but at his core, Smith remains a passionate teacher. Wanting to give back to the programs that influenced him so much, he started instructing at volunteer departments and became an advisor to the Explorer program, mentoring Charlotte teens for about six years.
“It was rewarding to see some of the kids that came up through the ranks of the Explorer post get hired. And some of them went on to become chiefs of departments and battalion chiefs here in the city and captains,” Smith said.
After being assigned to the action-filled Station No. 18 on the city’s west side, Smith began seeking various instructor certifications around rescue situations (trench rescue, water rescue, confined space extrication, etc.).
Eight years in with CFD and after establishing himself as an instructor sought out by various departments in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, Smith decided to take the captain’s test in 1991, consisting of written exams, several practicals, and panel interviews. He explained that fire captains are a bit like sergeants in the military overseeing a small, tightly knit group of people, saying “We’re right there with them when they go into a house fire, directing.” Captain assignments are limited in availability and often only open up as older firefighters are promoted or retire. So, Smith served as a relief captain, floating between stations for a couple of years, until the city gave him his own ladder company at Station No. 1 in Uptown.
Smith led that crew for 21 years. During that same time, he also raised three sons, participated in Boy Scout troop activities for more than two decades, and worked as a raft guide at the Whitewater Center. Smith had aspirations to become a battalion chief and so sent himself back to school at 40 years old to earn the required four-year degree. He graduated with a 4.0 from UMUC with degrees in Fire Science Technology and Public Fire Administration. He passed the city’s exams multiple times. But far fewer battalion chiefs were retiring relative to the qualified applicants waiting in line. Something needed to give.
Shortly after the protests that followed the death of Keith Lamont Scott, Smith found himself in need of a break from uptown and its years of accumulated strains. “We were running 20 to 30 calls per day. And it just got to be too stressful. I was going through a divorce. Just being away from the family takes a toll on firefighters,” he explained. “There is a lot that we see. Firefighters see people on their worst days. They miss out on family events, holidays, birthdays. Spouses have to carry a lot of the burden. Divorce is really a time for reflection. You really learn that the guys at the firehouse are your family. We all see each other go through our ups and our downs. Our successes and failures.”
NoDa offers new and different challenges compared to uptown. At Station No. 7, the pace is a bit slower – they normally run about 10 to 12 calls per day, often in coordination with other nearby one-truck stations to service calls in Optimist Park, Belmont, Hidden Valley, Druid Hills, et al. About 85 percent of their call volume is medical related, with far too many citizens using 911 for primary medical care purposes.
Smith cited parking issues and crowded streets as a major safety issue in NoDa. “It’s an old mill town and the streets just weren’t designed for fire trucks and double-sided parking,” he said. Uber and delivery vehicles blocking roads and access in the neighborhood are also a concern. “They say, ‘I’ll only be a minute,’ but in our line of work, a minute can be the difference between saving a life or not,” Smith said.
Smith really enjoys his current assignment. “Working at a fire house that’s been here since 1935, you feel like you’re part of the community. We have visitors that come by every day that want to see the fire truck. They bring their kids by and we get to know them by their first names,” he said.
The station has an actual working fire pole, and the back breakroom used to be a jail cell. “Every time you go up or down those steps, you think about all the guys that came before you, the guys from the 1930s that were here,” Smith said. “All three shifts get along. It’s like leaving home and going to another home. It’s our family away from family.”