As head of the Canaan Fire Department for 33 years, Chief Clinton Metts has survived two heart attacks, cancer and even a period of burnout with his job.
But he says what keeps him and other firefighters going is gratitude from those they have helped.
“There’s really no reward other than the satisfaction of doing something for someone, and someone saying ‘thank you,’” he said.
Volunteer firefighters get no pay, no tax breaks and little gas reimbursement, he said.
“If you get some kind of little smile and somebody says ‘thank you’ and means it, then I think that’s what it’s about,” Metts said.
He and the department receive letters of gratitude from citizens they have assisted.
“When we get a ‘thank you,’ we review it with the people and we put it in the file. We’ve got a pretty sizable file of ‘thank yous,’” he said.
“Sometimes we tell them, ‘Man, we can operate for another six months on a ‘thank you’ like that,’” Metts said.
There’s no such thing as a normal emergency call, he said.
“The thing that we tell everybody is that there’s nothing that’s ever routine. When we leave, we don’t ever think that it’s anything other than a little normal call," he said.
“And before we get back, it may be something entirely different. Routine is not a word that we use – it’s not that."
“What we do – there’s a lot of risk involved. And we try to manage that risk,” Metts said.
The department responds to 200 to 250 calls per year, he said. Sometimes there’s only a call every four or five days. And recently, there were four calls in one day.
“It varies from things as simple as a cat in a tree, believe it or not ... an armadillo that needs to be taken away out of the yard, snakes in the house,” he said.
Firefighters have also responded to people who have died in their homes, women giving birth and people with serious illnesses who need medical attention. And of course, there are fires.
“It may be a grass fire, it may be a woods fire, it may be a shed fire, it may be a golf cart or lawn mower,” Metts said.
“It may be a full-size structure, it may be a commercial building where we go in and help the city with something,” he said.
Automatic aid and mutual aid agreements with other departments mean he and his firefighters could be providing manpower or water across the county, from Springfield to Eutawville, or even into Bamberg County, he said.
Locally, Canaan Fire Department covers about 2,500 people and about 1,100 to 1,200 buildings in a 35-square-mile area. Metts said that since the department has been in operation starting in 1985, there has been only one fire fatality in its coverage area.
A lot of training goes into being a firefighter, he said.
“Our people are highly qualified,” he said. “I think I have 10 Firefigher 2s and I have another 10-plus that are Firefigher 1s.”
So, of a roster of about 30 firefighters, more than 20 are interior certified, which means they are qualified to go inside a burning structure to perform an offensive firefight, Metts said.
All are qualified to drive fire trucks and perform exterior firefighting and vehicle extrication, he noted.
“Most of our people have to be qualified to do most everything because, you understand, the time/manpower situation being the way it is,” he said. “So, you have to have everybody trained to a certain level.
“We just got a lot of good folks, well-trained people,” Metts said. “I’m really proud of what they do.”
Metts is part of the department’s dive team, which performs body recovery and evidence recovery from Lake Marion, the Edisto River and local ponds.
“We’ve got eight people who are highly trained to do that,” he said.
Diving calls can be a dicey proposition.
“See, we don’t get to dive like it looks in the Caribbean, where you go down and see all the pretty sights,” Metts said.
Visibility is usually very low, he said.
“In the lake, first time you get three feet within the bottom, the visibility goes to zero,” he said. “You actually have to find whatever it is you’re looking for with your hands.”
Metts also has to oversee the department’s equipment, which includes 10 vehicles and more equipment at three different stations.
“It’s just an enormous amount of stuff that you have to have to do your job,” he said. Federal and state grants help with some of this, and his department is gearing up for a barbecue dinner to help raise funds, Metts said.
He has been Canaan Fire Department’s chief since its inception. Originally, the firefighters met at his house before they had a building. At one early meeting, Metts left the room to take a phone call. When he returned, his cohorts had elected him chief.
“Thanks a lot!” he told them sarcastically.
Being fire chief is not easy but he does what he can, he said.
“I’m on nitro every day,” Metts said. “I do what I can do. I know my limitations ... . I limit myself to what I can do. But it’s a lot. It scares me sometimes."
Sighing, he said, “It’s a hard job.”
But overall, “I think I’m blessed to be able to do all this,” Metts said.
“And stuff that’s kind of in my niche – repairing, fixing, doing – all that kind of stuff just fits me,” he added.
He said there’s a real need for some new blood in the department – younger people to replace the current firefighters who are mostly older.
Metts, 74, is a lifelong resident of the Canaan Community. Public service is a family affair: his wife, two daughters and son-in-law are also members of the fire department.
A 1962 graduate of Edisto High School, he sometimes visits schools for career days, and he said he stresses to students the importance of listening to what their teachers say.
“That’s how I learned most everything I know, is having 12 years of good teachers in the school system. I don’t think you can ever instill in the kids enough ... ” Metts said, trailing off, then continuing. "Something has happened. I know what’s happened, but I ain’t going to get into the religious part of what I believe. I know what’s happened, but they need to pay attention.”
There’s too much reliance on searching the internet for answers instead of getting knowledge in school, he said.
“People depend on that too much,” he said. “I credit whatever success I have in my life to having a very good, basic ... instructional 12 years in school.”
Playing sports taught him the value of “depending on each other and playing as a team,” Metts said.
“I came up at a good time, too. I graduated from high school in 1962. That’s just before we fell apart, kind of," he said.
“There was like anarchy within six to eight years, 10 years, in this country. And I don’t think it was about race, I think it was about ‘I want to do what I want to do.’”
“It can’t be like that," Metts said. "The Bible says you got to obey the law until it interferes with what God says. You got to be accountable to somebody.”
Metts attended South Carolina State University for three years as part of his employment with Albemarle, where he worked for 36 years. He received firefighting, emergency response and hazardous materials experience working at Albemarle.
“You call that a lot of on-the-job training,” he said. “And the ‘school of hard knocks,’ as well."
In the mid-1990s, he was one of several people who helped start Orangeburg County’s fire service.
There’s “a lot of good people in the county in the fire service, a lot of good people. Dedicated people,” he said.
“And you find out how people are dedicated when you have a call and it’s raining and it’s cold at 2 o’clock in the morning and you have a call that sounds like it might be routine and you find out how many people show up,” Metts said.
“That’s when you find out what you got,” he said.
Metts describes himself as “very, very involved" with his church, Canaan Baptist. When he’s not fulfilling his duties as fire chief, he’s doing something with the church, he said. He sings in the choir and serves as a deacon and member of several committees.
Many of his firefighters are also members of the church. And sometimes, those two worlds collide.
“We had a case on Sunday morning. There’s about six or seven of us in the choir at church, and we were doing our Easter cantata. And we were just singing away, and the pagers go off and the radios go off, and I said, “Oh Lord,’” Metts said. “And I looked and the back door was full of people going out the church. So the ones that were in the choir stayed in. And it just so happened that it was a medical call."
“Had it been a fire, we were listening. I was listening,” he said.
Metts said that he’s looking forward to fishing when he has time. He and his wife, Kathy, also enjoy going on Caribbean cruises – sometimes three per year. The couple has spent quite a bit of time in Nassau, Bahamas.
“She’s even got her own driver down there,” he laughed.