New fire chief officially sworn in
BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Friday, September 20, 2019
The first-ever African-American man to be hired as Rocky Mount’s top firefighter was sworn in on Thursday afternoon inside city Fire Station 1.
Chief Corey Mercer, 48, made clear he is quite aware of now officially being in charge of a premier municipal department with high standards set by his predecessors. Mercer twice received standing ovations during the gathering.
“I promise to do everything in my God-given abilities to uphold these standards,” Mercer said. “I will practice respect, transparency and professionalism at all times.”
And he added, “Just as I received support and encouragement during my journey to this point in time, I am aware that I’m not able to do this alone.
“I look forward to the consistent progression with everyone in the Rocky Mount Fire Department and throughout the city,” Mercer said.
Mercer was hired in July after having served as fire chief in Elizabeth City since February 2018.
At the time he was hired as the top firefighter in the Harbor of Hospitality, Mercer had served since 1994 with Rocky Mount’s fire department, most recently as a battalion chief.
Mercer on Thursday expressed appreciation to the attendees at Station 1 showing their support of Rocky Mount’s fire department.
“This is a day special to our agency as we move forward and continue in our legacy that is now 123 years old,” Mercer said.
“Many men and women have put in sweat equity to assure that the citizens of Rocky Mount receive the best all-hazard service possible. There is an expectation and there is a standard,” Mercer said.
Mercer, a Wilson native and a U.S. Army veteran, told the story of himself, in the person of “a young man” returning home from two tours of duty in the Middle East — and being a community college student struggling to secure a job as a firefighter.
Mercer told of the young man persisting and landing a job as a firefighter at the Rocky Mount Fire Department, only to learn, in dismay, of failing to meet the vision requirements of the physical examination.
Then, Mercer said, the young man was asked by the hiring chief whether he could wear soft contact lenses.
“The young man jumped in a 1974 yellow Volkswagen bug and drove as fast as he could to the nearest phone booth to call his mom and give her an update,” he said.
He said despite never having worn soft contact lenses and despite lacking the money to go an eye doctor, his since-deceased mother supported him by calling an eye doctor and giving him the money he needed.
Mercer became emotional to the point he halted his speech for a moment, but he kept his composure and resumed giving his remarks.
Mercer said, “Twenty-six years later, here I stand, humbly proud once again to become a member of this fine organization.”
Mercer acknowledged his mother, saying, “She passed away two years ago yet her encouraging words remain me with always.”
And Mercer said the other point of the story was “to show you that it took several people to perform a kind act and work as a team to get my fire service career started.”
City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney moments earlier welcomed Mercer back to Rocky Mount.
“Although you are coming back home in a new, more challenging capacity, we know you will continue to uphold the mission of the Rocky Mount Fire Department to serve the city of Rocky Mount, by protecting lives and property through quality and excellence in service,” Small-Toney told Mercer
Among those attending Thursday’s gathering was Elizabeth City State University campus police Chief John Manley, formerly Rocky Mount’s top cop. Manley also worked a long time with Mercer in Rocky Mount.
“So I think the city has made a great choice,” Manley said. “He understands the fire service. He’s a people-oriented person.”
Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Farris, who also was in attendance, said he likes a home-grown person running a home city department.
“He’s got a vested interest,” Farris said of Mercer. “He knows our citizens. He knows Rocky Mount. It’s a shorter learning curve. I think we’re mighty fortunate to have him back in Rocky Mount.”
State Rep. James Gailliard, D-Nash, said afterward he is excited for Mercer.
“I think they made a smart decision, a good decision,” Gailliard said. “I think he’ll be a fair leader. I think he’ll work hard. I think he’ll lead by example.”
City Councilman Reuben Blackwell afterward emphasized the words of the chaplain moments earlier in stating that with patience and determination, one can be able to reach his or her goal.
“And we just proved that in Rocky Mount,” Blackwell said.
“Now he has got to do the job,” Blackwell said of Mercer. “So it’s incumbent upon all of us to support him as he leads our phenomenal team and does great things for our city.”
Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner swore Mercer in as fire chief.