Photo above: Engineer Ethan Webb, left, was selected as Burton Fire District’s 2016 Firefighter of the Year for his continued leadership with younger firefighters and willingness to take on additional duties. Lt. Justin Blankenship, right, was selected as the Burton Fire District’s Officer of the Year for his dedication to the protection of the citizens of Burton through extra training. Photo by Bob Sofaly.
By Sally Mahan
It’s all in the family for the Burton Fire District’s 2016 Firefighter of the Year and District Officer of the Year.
Both drew on their family experiences to become firefighters, and now consider their fellow firefighters as part of their families, too.
Lt. Justin Blankenship was selected as the Burton Fire District’s Officer of the Year for his dedication to the protection of the citizens of Burton through extra training and schooling. He is one of the busiest officers in the district, which had nearly 300 emergency calls in 2016, including two house fires in one night.
Blankenship, 33, was born and raised in Beaufort.
His father owned a heavy equipment company, and that was the direction he thought he was heading.
But he started volunteering as a firefighter as a sophomore in high school, and would take classes on weekends and go on runs with the Sheldon fire station crew.
“I just really enjoyed it,” he said.
He started as a firefighter recruit — an entry level position — and worked his way up through the ranks and was promoted to lieutenant five years ago. He’s been with the district for 15 years.
He loves his job and takes great pleasure in coming to the aid of others.
“I love helping the community,” said Blankenship. “When they’re at their worst time they look to us, from being sick to fires to car wrecks.”
He particularly loves helping children.
“Every year we take Santa around on a fire engine,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the looks on the kid’s faces. It’s the most fun time of year for me because for some kids that’s the only time they see Santa.”
He’s also had his share of tough times.
“The toughest for me was a fatality fire and my niece was about the same age as the little girl who passed away,” he said. “With children it’s always really hard, and unfortunately I’ve seen my fair share of them. It haunts me.”
Blankenship gets through those tough times with the support of his wife, Shannon, with whom he has three children.
“(Shannon’s) dad was also a firefighter, so she knows a little bit about it,” he said. “That’s one thing about our fire department: We are very family-oriented. If we work a holiday the whole shift gets together and everyone comes up to share a meal and do family stuff. Also, our kids come up and eat dinner at the station at least one night a week.”
Blankenship said he was taken aback by the honor of District Officer of the Year.
“I was very surprised,” he said. “I try to do my job the best I can and it’s such an honor to be chosen by my peers and the chiefs.”
Engineer Ethan Webb was selected as Firefighter of the Year for his continued leadership with younger firefighters and willingness to take on additional duties.
Webb, as driver of Engine 5, gets his fire engine in service upon notification of an emergency with the fastest time of his shift with an average of one minute, 10 seconds. Webb was also named 2016 Exchange Club Firefighter of the year.
Like Blankenship, family comes first for him.
“My father has been a firefighter for 35 years; he’s our deputy chief,” said Webb, 24. “I grew up around the firehouse and it was always something I wanted to do.”
However, while his dad approved, his mother wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of him following in his father’s footsteps.
“My father was always there, but mom tried to talk me out,” he said. “She was worried. And initially after high school, I wasn’t going to do it. But then within a couple of years I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”
So he went to the fire academy and graduated with all of his certifications.
He then volunteered with Burton, but said he didn’t expect to get a job.
But after about eight months, he was hired as a full-time firefighter and “I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
He credits his fellow firefighters for his success.
“It’s truly a family, it’s a brotherhood that runs deeper than anything I’ve ever been involved with,” he said. “You form bonds in high school sports, but here you literally put your life in another person’s hand. That’s what makes it so special; it’s a huge family that’s not blood. We do whatever we can to help each other.”
And like Blankenship, he’s seen his share of tragedies.
“The hardest one was when I was on the job for about a month and we went to a cardiac arrest of a 32-year-old man. While we were doing CPR, his two little girls, who were about 4 or 5 years old, were standing at the end of the hallway, and that stuck with me for a long time, the sight of those girls. We were unable to save him.”
He’s also been blessed to save lives, he said.
“I remember a call on a 3-month-old infant not breathing on Trask Parkway,” he said. “By the time EMS pulled up we had the baby breathing. For anyone, a kid is a soft spot. It’s one of the highlights, and that’s what keeps you going. We see a lot of bad, but we are doing what we can to fix things, and that fuels my machine. I’ve always looked at it as running every call as if it was someone you know or love.”
He also depends on his fellow firefighters and his wife, Molly. “She’s my rock,” he said. “We see a lot of stuff and you can’t keep it bottled up.”
He also is grateful for the community support the department receives.
“We have a great community,” he said. “We have their backing and it says a lot about Beaufort County in general. I wouldn’t trade being a firefighter for anything.”