By Barney Blakeney
Former Mount Pleasant Fire Department Chief Herbert Williams says his 32 years with the department, retiring after serving the last 12 years as its chief, is testimony that God performs miracles.
The Bennettsville native says he previously worked for the S.C. Department of Transportation with co-workers who had spent decades on the job without advancing professionally. He saw his future there approaching a similar dead end. The opportunity to work for Mount Pleasant Fire Department gave him an alternative. Williams said working for the fire department initially guaranteed two things – he’d have a job and he’d bring home a paycheck every two weeks. Beyond that there were no certainties.
“I was so raw, I didn’t even realize the trucks carried water,” Williams recalls about his lack of knowledge of the fire service. He immediately went to work learning. Starting at the bottom as a fire fighter, Williams said he studied and trained always taking on new responsibilities and learning new skills. “I’ve held every position in the department – from fire fighter to trainer to chief. I could help the people under me do their jobs because I’ve done them all.”
Among the most important things Williams has learned along the way is the value of study and training. Working in an environment where 90 percent of those around don’t look like him – of 135 fire fighters only eight are Black/six are women and the Town of Mount Pleasant is about 95 percent white – Williams said he’s never felt as if he didn’t belong.
A deacon at Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, Williams credits his success to divine intervention. Throughout his career God said to him, “You be you and I’ll do the rest,” he attests. Williams said he did his part by learning the skills necessary to do the job and training to enable him to do it. And he always was allowed to do his job without interference.
In the department he considers the most progressive in the region, a minimum of two hours training is required daily. It’s that kind of thinking, and God’s blessings, which has made him successful in the department, he said.
Considering his success in the fire service, Williams says he’s at a loss to understand why more African Americans don’t choose the fire service as a career. He readily notes it’s not a job, but a career. One where in Mount Pleasant the starting salary is about $35,000 annually, it offers full benefits and only requires about 10 working days per month.
The opportunities are boundless, he said.
Williams said he retired only because he felt it was time to go. He says that he’s thankful to be leaving under his own terms. After 32 years always having to be available, he’s ready to spend more time with his wife Cynthia Washington Williams, a clinical counselor who also works for the Department of Defense. Her job requires a lot of traveling. He’s looking forward to traveling with her.
An avid golfer, Williams says he doesn’t have any other plans. “I didn’t retire to go to work,” he asserts pointedly. “I promised my mom I’d come home and take her to church once a month. Whatever happens after that, I hope it gives me enough time to play golf.”