Chapel Hill hires full-time fire chief

Friday, October 2, 2009

CHAPEL HILL - A couple of hours after he accepted the job as the town's first full-time, paid fire chief, Kenneth Runk was at the scene of another emergency.

And when Runk was responding to that call, he left his wife and kids at the fire hall. They were there to celebrate his new job in an institution that's something of a family tradition.

"I grew up in Fairview in Williamson County," the new chief said. "My dad was a firefighter and fire chief, on and off, there for 25 years."

Runk was the last of "several" candidates who were interviewed for the job of fire chief for Chapel Hill. He succeeds Police Chief Jackie King who served as interim fire chief for almost four months since Paul Rigsby left the department.

Runk is Chapel Hill's first full-time, paid fire chief for a department that's more than 30 years old. His first official full-time day at the fire station was Sept. 17. The department has had 13 calls since his job interview.

At the close of that interview on the Wednesday afternoon of Sept. 2, Runk was offered the job. He accepted, called his wife, Courtney, and she picked up their daughters, Jasmine, 9, and Charity, 8. He'd been a Chapel Hill volunteer since February of 1998, so the girls have become familiar with the fire hall.

"After high school, my wife and I bought a house at Caney Springs in February of 1998 and we've been here ever since," says Runk, 32.

They've seen a lot of changes in nearly 12 years here. Before the girls came along, there were 27 calls during the first year Runk was a volunteer firefighter for Chapel Hill.

"Last year," he said, "we ran over 300."

In the past decade, new home construction in the north end of the county hasn't been just in Chapel Hill, which has annexed territories up Nashville Highway, north and then east on Eagleville Highway.

And Chapel Hill's Fire Department still considers the north end its territory.

The department's territory is "from county line to county line north of the Duck River," he said, "but we do service Henry Horton State Park...

"For grant-writing reasons, we've estimated about 115 square miles" is the territory served by the small town's fire department, Runk said.

"That's our primary response area, but we do include the Laws Hill area for our first responder call, assisting the Emergency Medical Service on medical calls," he said. "As far as fires, that's Farmington's area...

"We run ... medical calls," he continued. "We call that a first-responder call. We run along with the ambulance.

"And we have our own jaws of life so we can do our own extrication here in Chapel Hill."

There are 26 people in the fire department including the chief and the town administrator, Mike Hatten. The town pays all of the department's utilities, fuel, and maintenance. Funding for other purchases is frequently through donations from area residents.

"Between $10,000 and $15,000 is what we get every year from our picture drive," Runk said of a typical fund-raising effort by fire departments in rural area.

Much of the big equipment is paid through grants. One tanker truck was paid for with money from a federal grant.

But another fire truck was purchased with money from the Chapel Hill Lions Club.

"And we get support from people who we've not serviced before," Runk said, thanking the community for its support and donations.

As chief, Runk is, obviously, the leader of the firefighters at the scene of fires and other incidents, but there's more to it.

"My job is to have everything ready to go when they arrive," he said of having trucks ready to roll with pressure built up for the team to douse a blaze.

Other duties include "paper work, maintenance of fire apparatus and reporting to the National Fire Incident Reporting System," he said. The NFIRS compiles "statistical reports for new legislation" toward better fire department services. "It's how the government keeps track of what we're doing."

The Runks live on Honeysuckle Way in Caney Springs.

"For the last five years, I worked for the Williamson County Schools doing carpentry work for the school board," he said.

Before that he was building golf courses, including Kings' Creek Golf Club course in Spring Hill and before that, building the Governors' Club course on Concord Road in Brentwood.

Runk's set hours at the Fire Hall are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., but he's on call 24-7, unless he's camping at St. Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach with his wife and "tom boys" who enjoy fishing, hunting, playing with fire trucks, cheer leading and various positions during ballgames.