LUMBERTON — Kenneth Rhodes put on his fire marshal badge for the last time today, bringing to an end 40 years of service in Lumberton that includes a location change, several title changes and tens of thousands of inspections.
“I thought it would be an interesting job, exciting with the fire and all,” he said of becoming a firefighter in August 1971 at age 21. “Mainly, to be able to help people in their time of need.”
Rhodes has been the fire marshal in Lumberton for 37 years. Before that, he worked three years on shift work.
After six months doing shift work, he was approached by the fire chief about working in fire prevention.
“The fire chief could not keep anybody in fire prevention. Nobody wanted it,” he said.
When the chief offered him the position, Rhodes responded with a “Let me think about it.” Not a word was said for those three years, during which the town saw at least three fire marshals come and go. Then the chief made Rhodes another offer.
By that point, he was married, and the thought of having nights and weekends off appealed to him.
“I thought, the others have gone in and come out, why not try it?” he said. “And I did, and here it is. I never imagined 40 years later, I’d be doing the same job.”
Rhodes’ title has undergone changes over the years, from fire inspector to fire prevention supervisor to fire marshal. The core of his responsibilities, though, has always been inspecting buildings to make sure they meet state fire code requirements and identifying fire hazards such sprinklers, alarms and extinguishers that don’t work properly.
Locked exit doors became a focus of his after a fire at a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet killed 25 people in 1991.
“Because of that situation, I thought I’m not gonna have problems with locked exit doors anymore, but I still do,” he said. “Folks are not aware of that incident, and folks are just doing it.”
He says he’ll miss most the people he met during those inspections.
“You get to meet people, have conversations with them … You might know them and find out even more about them and their families,” he said.
Working with the public wasn’t always easy, though.
“It’s not just go in and do a fire inspection,” he said. “… It’s better that easy going attitude rather than go in and say, ‘I’m the fire marshal and you’re gonna do what I say.’ That’s not the way to do it. And I guess that’s what brought me through the years so much.”
Jody Allen, director of inspections for the city, has a 30-year working relationship with Rhodes.
“He’s a quite particular person. He wants things perfect, and he diligently works about getting things perfect,” Allen said. “He wouldn’t go out there and tell them they had to this they had to do that. … He’d go out of his way to help people to get it done.”
Succeeding Rhodes will be Assistant Fire Chief Kenny Locklear, who has worked with the Lumberton Fire Department for 23 years.
“I feel like he’ll be able to get along with the public and do a good job,” Rhodes said. “… I feel confident that he’ll keep things going good.”
With his time off, Rhodes says he plans to spend the extra time with his family, including his wife, a son in Colorado and a daughter and granddaughter in Fairmont.
He also looks forward to continuing his interest in cars and car shows, and working on his 1993 Corvette.
“I guess every man has to have a toy, and that’s exactly what something like that is,” he said with a laugh. “It keeps me feeling young.”