Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) - Lexington County Fire Chief Brad Cox is retiring from his position as the leader of the county’s fire service after nearly eight years. As he walks away, he’s left a firefighting force that’s more modern, adaptable, and rates much better than the one he took the reins of after moving to South Carolina. Cox, who’s not a native of Lexington County, brought with him a new perspective that at times was resisted by some, but after it was implemented, has proven it could make Lexington County a safer place to live, work, and play.
Cox came to Lexington County from S.L.E.D. where he worked in their grants department. He had retired from the fire department where he started in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. He hung up his gear there in 2004. He had applied to be the chief in Greensboro three times and was turned down each time. Maybe that was fate forcing him to take the first steps that put him on a path that would eventually bring him to Lexington County. This was a place that he was able to implement the things he’d learned by keeping his nose in books and his feet on the training grounds in Greensboro.
Not one to loaf around after his first retirement from fighting fire, Cox decided playing golf would keep him busy, healthy, and happy. He soon realized that playing a game wouldn’t fulfill him and instead took a job in the golf industry as a cure for his restlessness. The job he accepted was in Myrtle Beach and that brought him south of the border to live in our state for the first time. Later, after leaving the golf course job and while working with SLED, he applied for a job as the leader of Lexington County Fire Service. In 2010 he was hired. For years he rented a place here in Lexington County, but finally decided he’d given us enough of a chance to impress him. Eventually, our fast-growing county must have made the right impression on him because Cox bought a house in Lexington and put down some roots. At that point in his life, Lexington County was officially his home.
Cox brought some of the things he’d learned in Greensboro to Lexington County. He had his command staff record how long it takes firefighters to get from their stations to a fire at all hours. He also looked at just how long it took to get enough firefighters on the scene to make a fire attack. He knew that getting a truck and a few men on scene looked good, but they were only effective when they had enough there to form a team. Cox also formed a committee of personnel from all levels of the department to develop a plan to improve the fire service over time. He used those statistics and numbers to identify weaknesses and then formulate a comprehensive plan to overcome those. Although some objected to all this record keeping and reports, they couldn’t argue with the results. The numbers showed that things were beginning to improve in Lexington County.
During Cox’s tenure, the proof as they say, is in the pudding. The county’s ISO rating, a scale that measures how a fire department performs and insurance executives use to set how much you pay for insurance on your home or business, dropped from a 7/10 to a 3/10. The first number indicates your rating if you live closer to a fire station, while the second number is your rating if the station is much further away. This in and of itself meant that investing in the ideas Cox and his team had put in the comprehensive plan was paying off in dividends that could be measured in dollars and cents. You see a great fire service doesn’t cost, it can actually pay. The goal now of the fire service is to make it to a ISO Class 1 department, something only a few departments have done in SC.
Cox did things no one from Lexington County ever dreamed of doing. It wasn’t that he was that much brighter that his peers or predecessors, he just wasn’t saddled with the deep traditions of Lexington County's existing firefighters others would deal with. He wasn’t forced to measure his next move by the politics of the old fire service and that allowed him to look at things from outside the box. Sure, some old timers got their feelings hurt, but things were improving. Sometimes change is painful, but necessary. The county’s fire fleet was adjusted in size, equipment was moved around, and different types of apparatus were tested. The phrase, "Well that's the way we've always done it," became a no-go with Cox, and personnel were encouraged to make suggestions. Even the color of the fire trucks changed from white to a charcoal grey and red. This one change took him almost eight years to get done, but the new trucks look great and have the support of the firefighters who use them. Besides, they work well too.
Cox, now 65, implemented new physical fitness requirements and standards. He didn’t ask his crews to do something he wouldn’t do, so he regularly worked out too. Training hours increased for our firefighters and under Cox, the new Frank D. Ballentine Training Center was completed and dedicated; its name homage to a training officer who taught thousands across the county before he died. It was definitely a tribute to a great man and a part of what is now becoming a legacy and a part of the traditions of firefighting in Lexington County that built over time.
Even though Cox will be gone, he’s not through making positive impacts yet. A new headquarters station for the southern region is set to open soon off Charleston Highway. In other areas, more stations are on the way to cover regions where the most calls are run. Assistant Chief David Fulmer, a man who started in Lexington County and proudly remembers the traditions when fathers and sons battled fires side-by-side, said recently that the new South Region station will be, “Unlike anything you’ve ever seen us build here.” This was all a part of that comprehensive plan that Cox and his crew developed after keeping up with all those facts and figures.
Now as he packs up his things and thinks about playing some more golf, he also has a desire to spend more time with his grandchildren. No matter if he’s the retired guy on the golf course or a full-time granddad, most who know him would be willing to bet that his heartbeat will quicken, and he’ll have to turn his head and sneak a peek when a firetruck screams by.
Lexington County has already hired his replacement. Mark Davis, the former deputy chief of operations of the Charleston, SC Fire Department, has joined Lexington County as its chief. He’s been working for some time alongside Cox learning the lay of the land, meeting the personnel, forming some ideas of his own.
Davis has a long and distinguished background of experience and a rich firefighting history too. One part of his tenure with Charleston that will certainly stay with him forever is the Sofa Super Store Fire. When Davis was a captain, he was one of only three men that actively fought that fire inside the structure that evening and escaped to tell the tale. In total, nine men would die when the building collapsed around them. The dead will forever be known as the Charleston Nine, and no firefighter that knows the history of the job, will ever forget what happened that day.
After that fire, the entire Charleston department was transformed. Many of the older officers and firefighters who were resistant to change left or retired. There chief, a man who had grown up at the fire stations in the city, also retired. Davis stayed and learned all he could of the new ways while he earned each stripe on his shoulder. Perhaps, like Cox did, he’ll bring with him new ideas, new techniques, and the knowledge that firefighters can do a great job, still be effective, but stay safe. Time will tell the tale, but look for great things as Davis builds on the foundation that Cox and his team established.