Fire Chief Mark Haraway built the Apex Fire Department from the ground up in the past decade, guiding its transition from an all-volunteer force to a professional one that has won many awards and recognitions.
“When I got here we had one truck,” Haraway said. “Operating two men and a truck. Now we have four stations, and 17 people on duty at all times.”
Haraway, 51, is perhaps best known for leading the town’s response to the 2006 EQ Industrial Services fire.
But after 12 years as Apex’s fire chief and 35 years as a firefighter, he’s set to retire.
Keith McGee, a longtime firefighter from Rocky Mount, has been named the new chief.
Haraway cites “exponential growth” as Apex’s biggest safety challenge in the years to come and said McGee will have to grow the department just as much as he did, but in a much shorter period of time.
Haraway oversaw the opening of three new fire stations during his tenure as the force grew from six people to 83, including 56 full-time staff.
But he’s confident Apex’s firefighters will continue getting the job done under their new boss, despite challenges posed by the town’s rapid growth.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Haraway said. “I’ve had a great group here. It’s all about the team. I’m the coach, and I’ve had a great team.”
Dealing with disaster
While Haraway’s most constant battles in Apex were with growth and budget constraints, he’s known for a three-day incident eight years ago that made international news.
On Oct. 5, 2006, EQ Industrial Services went up in flames. As the hazardous waste storage site on Investment Boulevard released a toxic cloud amid the roaring fire, firefighters and police officers scambled to evacuate 17,000 residents – half the town – in the middle of the night.
Thanks to a disaster plan developed by Haraway and his staff, the evacuation went smoothly, and the fire and resulting gas cloud did not kill or seriously injure anyone.
The town’s work was hailed as a model for large-scale emergency responses, and Haraway traveled the country lecturing other departments with Town Manager Bruce Radford and then-Police Chief Jack Lewis.
Radford said while he and then-Mayor Keith Weatherly got most of the media attention after the fire, Haraway deserves the most credit.
“I had to tell Mark to go home after 38 hours on the job,” Radford said. “He didn’t want to leave, but he did leave.
“But I forgot to tell him when he could come back, and two or three hours later he was back on the scene.”
It’s that kind of dedication and focus that made Haraway the outstanding leader he is, Radford said.
Haraway said there’s simply no other option. He has to be involved.
“There’s not a call in this town that I don’t take,” Haraway said. “I don’t care if it’s 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning ... because my duties are not only to the personnel but also to their families, to make sure they come home safe.”
If it made him a good boss, it also has made him absolutely sure he’s ready to retire.
“I’ll miss the people,” Haraway said. “I’ll miss the brotherhood of the business. ... I won’t miss the rest of it. Too many years of worrying that everybody goes home.”
Finding the positives
In Apex, the department has never had a firefighter killed or badly hurt on the job, Haraway said, but, “we’ve had some near-misses and close calls.”
He counts the entire three-day response to the EQ fire as one massive close call. But he also looks back on the experience positively. No one died, the company was banned from returning to Apex, and stronger regulations were passed in the wake of the disaster.
“I always try to find the positive,” he said. “Like I say, everything we go to is negative. So if we can restore normality or make a change, that will have a lasting effect.”
Part of his contribution was writing a book about the response plan, parts of which are now used to train emergency personnel. He also gave speeches to NASA and at an International Association Fire Chiefs convention.
The EQ fire wasn’t Haraway’s first time turning a disaster into a learning experience.
Before he came to Apex he was a Wilmington Fire Department official involved in several high-profile emergency responses, including a filming accident that killed one person and injured six others. That led Haraway to Hollywood, to develop safety standards for Universal Studios.
In addition to potentially averting other tragedies, Haraway’s Hollywood involvement landed him a minor role in the 1999 firefighter movie “Holy Joe,” playing the assistant fire chief to the chief and star, the late John Ritter.
Off screen, Haraway is proud of the training his employees receive and the training they’ve been a part of. The department started the first fire intern program in the state. But Radford said training alone can’t make someone like Haraway.
“Mark Haraway is steady,” Radford said. “He never gets rattled. ... And Mark has demonstrated that time and time and time again, to the benefit of the folks whose disaster he was responding to. He’s respected by folks in town and across the country.”
A love of water
McGee, a division chief in Rocky Mount, has spent time in Apex learning directly from Haraway, who also prepared a detailed notebook for his successor.
After Haraway hands the department over, he said he’s planning a relatively low-key retirement in eastern Tennessee.
Like any good firefighter, Haraway loves water. His retirement goal is to hike to every waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
First, though, he’ll get some much-needed rest.
“My doctor asked me once, when’s the last time I had a good night’s sleep,” Haraway said.
It was in May 1979, when a 16-year-old Haraway joined the Danville, Virginia, volunteer fire department. He’s the son of a career fireman and grandson of a career policeman.
Firefighting is the only life he’s ever known.
“And I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.