Smithfield’s new fire chief, John Blanton, fought his first fire when he was 16 years old. Flames had engulfed a barn one night in his native Cumberland County, and Blanton remembers the devastation and loss on the farmer’s face while learning firsthand the role firefighters have in a community.
“You’re helping people in need during their worst times,” Blanton said. “Your job is to protect the community.”
Earlier this month, Smithfield removed the interim tag and promoted Blanton to full-time fire chief. He had served in the role since July, when he took over for retiring chief Patrick Harris.
Blanton brings 30 years of experience to the job, first signing up as a volunteer firefighter in 1984 in Cumberland County. Four years later, he and his wife moved to Smithfield, where they’ve been ever since.
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“It was just something to do as a child; we were taught to join an organization; you did things to help out,” Blanton said of becoming a volunteer firefighter. “But once you got involved, you learn to love it and realize you could make a career of it. There aren’t enough jobs out there, but I’ve been fortunate in my career.”
Blanton’s father was a firefighter, but it took his own experiences to understand the scope of the job.
“There’s a self-satisfaction in being able to help someone every day,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of rewards on the job, the kind you can hold in your hand, but there are rewards internally. You see the need for the job and see that compassion is such a great thing. Fire is such a devastating thing, we try our best to preserve what’s there when we get there.”
Through training, Blanton said, all firefighters can sense the movements and location of a fire based on its sounds. Fighting fires, though, is a young man’s game, and Blanton said his role is now securing funding for the department and educating the community on fire prevention.
“Every young firefighter want’s to fight fire,” Blanton said. “It basically is a fight to put the fire out. You learn to use all your senses, because in most cases it’s completely dark. The crackling, popping leads you to where the fire is at. But fire prevention is about what could happen and protecting the community before anything is lost,”
The Smithfield Fire Department ran 2,100 calls last year, an average of more than 40 per week. Most were medical related. The department is made up of 12 full-time firefighters, 10 part-timers, 28 volunteers, two part-time fire inspectors and one part-time secretary.
Blanton said he’s grateful to lead the town’s department and that his door is open. “I’m very proud to serve the town of Smithfield,” he said. “It’s an honor to hold this job and fill the shoes of those who held it before me.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson