Capt. Josh Gibson has learned to expect the unexpected. Adjusting his baseball cap and running a hand through his short, dark brown beard, he remembers a day in 2020 when the six officers manning the Bald Head Island Public Safety Department couldn’t seem to catch a break.
A large structure fire broke out in the Keepers Landing area of the island. The officers on duty responded and held off the fire alone while waiting for mutual aid to respond to the island — a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport.
When aid arrived, two of the officers suffered extreme fatigue and heat exhaustion. One had to be airlifted to the mainland for medical treatment.
Once the fire was under control, a fire alarm call came in that had to be checked out. Exhausted, the officers responded.
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Then came the medical call: A man suffered severe head trauma after falling off a bike. As that patient was being airlifted off the island, a death notification call came in.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Gibson said. “The only thing you do know is it’s you and your five brothers and sisters.”
In any typical locality, three agencies would be responding to the various calls received that day. But, on Bald Head Island, it’s one department.
Bald Head Island public safety officers are part of a rare breed of first responders. The village is one of very few jurisdictions nationwide that has fully integrated its law enforcement, fire and EMS into one department: Bald Head Island Public Safety.
Each of the department’s 24 officers is certified in all three disciplines.
A rare breed
Alan May, director of public safety for Bald Head Island, said his department is the only one in the state to provide police, fire and EMS services, that he knows of.
“It takes a special person to be able to work all three of these disciplines,” he said. “We have a very dedicated and unique group of individuals that make up this agency.”
May said both physically and psychologically, the roles are demanding — and his officers balance those responsibilities threefold.
In North Carolina, the city of Morganton and town of Butner also have public safety departments, but those only combine police and fire services in those jurisdictions, relying on EMS services in the surrounding localities.
The island is an oasis of sorts, only reachable by boat. Low, overgrown trees canopy the narrow roadways, designed for golf carts and bicycles rather than firetrucks.
“We can’t use county EMS because, well, there’s a little bit of water in the way,” May laughed.
While it’s not rare for a law enforcement officer to volunteer with a local fire department, or a firefighter to also be certified in EMS, it’s rare that an officer be certified in all three disciplines – and dedicate the more than 100 hours annually to keep up those certifications, May said.
Law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics are required to undergo roughly 36 hours of continuing education to keep their certifications up to date. For these public safety officers, that annual training is multiplied by three — 36 hours required for each discipline they’re certified in, totaling at least 108 hours annually.
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“It takes a lot to keep up all three,” said Woody Altman, public safety officer with the department.
Altman is one of the even more rare few to have started with the agency already certified in all three disciplines.
Altman began his career in the 1980s on a rescue squad before working as a firefighter. He then got his EMT and, once he turned 21, underwent law enforcement training and joined the N.C. Highway Patrol.
“I just wanted to do it all,” he said. “You don’t find many people that have all three already.”
Altman worked part-time with Bald Head Island Public Safety for about a year before joining the department full time about eight months ago.
“It was a good fit for me,” he said.
But, May said, Altman is the exception.
Typically, he said, officers join the department certified in just one or two of the disciplines, working part-time while they earn their needed remaining certifications. The opportunity to grow and earn more certifications and experience across the disciplines is part of the appeal for some recruits, he said.
May said the department is fully staffed and well-rounded with a good balance of officers who are more experienced law enforcement officers, paramedics or firefighters.
“They’re trained in all three, but they each have their strengths,” May said.
A culture of its own
On a typical “D” shift, the six officers on duty gather to share lunch together in the kitchen of the department’s two-story building.
“This is very typical of a fire department,” public safety officer Brandon Fuller said. “We eat every meal together. Tonight for dinner, we’re cooking burgers and hotdogs.”
Altman, whose career has been spent mostly in law enforcement, said the department is a unique blend of the cultures in each of the three disciplines. Sharing meals is reminiscent of his time with the Hamlet Fire Department, while patrolling the island in his truck reminds him of the more individualized nature of the highway patrol.
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The department is complete with a hallway of bunk rooms and showers, also typical of fire units. Officers work 24-hour shifts and then they’re off for three days. That schedule may sound grueling to someone in a 9-to-5 job, but it was part of the appeal for many officers in the department.
“We get really close,” Fuller said. “We’re basically living together for days at a time.”
The kitchen is complete with four full-sized refrigerators — one for each shift. A black bike lock is wrapped around the handles of one of them.
Not without challenges
Public safety officer Chip Sudderth said wearing all three hats on a daily basis is not without challenges.
“You’ve got a lot of things that you’re trying to balance,” he said.
Sudderth recalled the night of the Lighthouse Landing fire late last year, when several structures were engulfed in flames and units from Brunswick County and other area localities were called to the island to help.
Once the fire was under control, he said, the crew was left to clean up and finally returned to the station for some sleep. Then, a medical call came in and the officers who had just spent hours fighting the large blaze immediately put on their EMS hats.
While driving to the call, officers noticed the fire from earlier had rekindled. Daily, he said, the roles can conflict with one another.
“The very nature of being a paramedic verses the very nature of being a police officer, it’s two completely different worlds,” he said.
As a paramedic, he said, “you have to have a lot of trust in people.”
Sudderth described both law enforcement officers and paramedics as “investigators,” but, he said, their investigations are conducted differently.
“In both situations, you have a problem that you have got to ask the right questions, you have to read the person and you have to develop a certain rapport with a person and hopefully get the right answers,” he said.
While a criminal might be deceitful or dishonest with a law enforcement officer, a patient is going to be as honest as they can be with a paramedic in order to get the help they need in that moment, he said.
“The hard part is if I’m wearing a gun belt and [a bulletproof vest] and I’m trying to get that same rapport with a patient, they’re going to shut down more quickly because they’re going to think I’m law enforcement and I’m trying to put them behind bars,” Sudderth said.
Balancing the public perception of each of the three roles has also been a challenge, officers said.
When you’re a law enforcement officer and a firefighter and a paramedic, Sudderth said, those perceptions, which can overlap and even contradict one another, become hard to manage for officers and the public.
“As a paramedic, I need to have that trust,” he said. “That trust isn’t automatically there right now with everyone and law enforcement.”
May said the department is constantly working to maintain a healthy, trusting relationship with both locals and tourists on the island.
While the three roles are different, Gibson said they’re also similar.
“The main thing in all three is, there’s a problem and I’m here and trained to solve it,” Gibson said.
Jamey Cross is the public safety reporter at the StarNews. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or message her on Twitter @jameybcross.