KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (WBTV) - From the City of Kannapolis: Every day, Kannapolis Fire Chief Ernie Hiers takes time to walk the floors of Kannapolis City Hall. With a wave of his hands, a big smile and terrible jokes, he checks in on every department in the City. This tradition exemplifies who he is both in his personal and professional life. He cares about people and their wellbeing.
“I have always just wanted to help people,” he says. “For me, this has been the best job in the world. It’s my hope, my goal, that every call for service helps someone when they need it the most.”
Ernie was just 21 years old when he joined the fire department in Temple Terrace, FL. “I had a friend, Bill, who was a firefighter. Bill showed me the impact firefighters make in their community.”
He worked his way up through the ranks – driver/engineer, shift captain, assistant fire chief, and then fire chief and emergency management coordinator. “I never said I want to be chief someday – it just happened. I enjoyed taking on leadership responsibilities such as the budget and new technology and one thing led to another.”
He earned his B.S. in fire and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati and a master’s degree in public administration from City University in Bellevue, WA.
Ernie has seen tremendous change in fire service in his 39 years of service. “When I started as a firefighter we did not have 911 – we had a red phone at the department; someone would be there waiting to answer the phone and then we could respond. There were no air packs and only three firefighters on duty at one time.”
While in Florida he implemented a paramedic service, moving the department into a new era of providing emergency medical care and firefighting. He was also responsible for achieving accreditation for the department. He retired from the Temple Terrace Department with 27 years of service. He and his wife, Dora, were ready for a change, but Ernie wasn’t quite ready to leave his firefighting career behind. They had visited North Carolina for the races and the cooler weather, and decided to look for opportunities here.
“We wanted to be somewhere where we had a good quality of life and near the mountains. The position for fire chief was open in Kannapolis, so I applied.” He joined Kannapolis as fire chief and emergency management coordinator in 2007. He was the second full time fire chief for the City.
Ernie’s career in Kannapolis has included overseeing a period of growth in the number of firefighters per shift, from 33 firefighters to 84 firefighters; a transition from both paid and volunteer firefighters to an all-paid staff; a sophisticated 911 system; thorough emergency management plans; a reverse 911 system; computers in trucks; upgraded radio communications for the region; and thermal imaging systems – to just name a few.
The department has received grants for a Knox Box system for the elderly and disabled, and smoke alarms for anyone who requests them; has an outreach program for the hard-of-hearing and other special populations to teach them fire prevention and first aid; and initiated a Fire Explorer program to encourage teenagers who are interested in a firefighting career.
Most importantly, Ernie has overseen the planning for the future of Kannapolis’ fire stations and the construction of two new replacement stations – #2 and #3. He has also worked to improve the ISO rating for the City. When asked what else he is proud of during his tenure as chief, Ernie notes that the department has progressed to be one of the benchmark departments in the state and country.
“Not a week goes by that another department doesn’t call us and want to know how we do things here – whether it is training and professional development or our community programs,” he says. “I am also proud of the relationships our department has with all of our coworkers in the City and our mutual aid relationships with our neighboring fire departments, such as the City of Concord.
One of the primary things that has changed during his career is the number of medical calls the department responds to. “The number of fires has not really increased over the years – we have safer buildings, smoke alarms and fire prevention education that helps to keep that number manageable – but the number of medical calls increases along with our population,” Ernie comments. “The City’s growth means more people, more businesses and more traffic, so naturally that means more medical calls. A firefighter gets to interact with the community on a daily basis. Whether that’s saving someone from a heart attack, treating a patient with injuries or rescuing entire families from a burning house, we make a positive impact on our community. It’s the best job in the world.” (In 2007 Kannapolis Fire responded to 3,760 incidents – in 2018 there were 9,091).
Now that he is retiring for the second time, he and his wife plan to travel more, enjoy time with their family and indulge in his hobby of serving as a Kansas City Barbeque Society Master Judge.
Division Chief Rick Barnhardt has been named Interim Fire Chief.