Overman hanging up fire helmet after 30 years
By Reggie Ponder
Friday, December 7, 2018
Barry Overman is retiring today from the Elizabeth City Fire Department — nearly 30 years to the day after he started.
It was Dec. 9, 1988, when Overman translated his interest in public safety and experience with the Weeksville Volunteer Fire Department into a job as a paid firefighter. After graduating from Northeastern High School and working for a year or so at local airship manufacturer TCOM, Overman became increasingly interested in public safety work and found the shift schedule of the fire department appealing because it would give him days off back to back to do other things.
Overman said he considered an apprenticeship at a shipyard in the Hampton Roads area but decided he didn’t want to drive two hours to work, especially along the old “canal bank road” that was U.S. 17 through Chesapeake, Virginia, before before the current four-lane highway was built.
The lure of the fire service finally was irresistible, so Overman became a part of the fire crew at what was then Station One at the corner of Pool and Elizabeth streets.
“It just seemed like the kind of job I would enjoy doing because it’s something different every day,” he said.
Overman’s hunch turned out to be exactly right.
“Every hour and every day was something different,” Overman said. “I never got bored.”
The first year Overman was in the fire department, firefighters still rode on the tailboard of the truck, he said. He noted he had a few close calls when the truck would hit a bump in the road.
Overman did suffer an injury after about two years on the job, but it wasn’t from falling off a moving truck. He injured his knee while battling a dumpster fire. Overman quipped that he wished he had a more dramatic story to tell, but the injury was no joke — it required him to undergo a series of surgeries over the next four years.
Because of the injury Overman took a job as an inspector in 1994, and then when the fire marshal job came open in 1998 he took that job.
It was never his plan to do anything other than fight fires, he said.
“I had no intention of ever coming off the big red truck,” Overman said. “That’s what a fireman does.”
But he ended up enjoying the fire marshal’s job.
Overman said he especially enjoyed putting on the annual fire show for schoolchildren that he and Dena Richardson started about 15 years ago as a way to hold students’ attention while teaching them about fire prevention.
“We wanted to do something different,” Overman said. “That’s been our biggest marketing tool for fire prevention.”
The show got the attention of people from the state and in 2014, with help from a state fire prevention grant, the department presented the fire show at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh.
Overman said the fire show wouldn’t have worked if members of the department had not gotten excited about it and been willing to put time and effort into it. The fire show has been the most exciting part of his job, he said, with fire investigations being the second-most exciting part.
Overman said he likes to think the fire prevention effort has saved lives and property. “You never know what you’re going to prevent,” he said.
In 1997 Overman attended classes at College of The Albemarle where he trained to become a sworn law enforcement officer. The training allowed him to investigate fires, take on the powers of arrest and to follow a case all the way through the courts.
Because faith is such an important part of his life, Overman attributes his move into fire prevention work to Divine Providence. In fact, he sees his whole career path in that light.
The first time he interacted with a family that had lost everything in a fire, he said, “I realized I was not in this job by accident.” The job provides him an opportunity to minister to people “when they are in the worst time of their life, after they have lost a loved one or lost their property,” he said.
Overman said he and others in the department have helped families get back on their feet after a fire, whether searching through the ashes for belongings or connecting the family with the Red Cross for assistance. Sometimes it might not even have been what the fire department is supposed to do, but firefighters have felt compelled to help out in the aftermath of the fire, he said.
“It is truly a blessing to be able to do that,” he said of helping people recover from a traumatic event in their lives. “If you want to have a blessed life, then serve.”
The first big fire Overman responded to after joining the city fire department was at Tanglewood Farms in March 1989 and it happened to occur on his birthday.
“I spent all night and into the next day,” he said. “That was a cold night, too. It felt like winter. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Now that he is retiring, Overman plans to focus on one of his other passions, Gospel music. In fact, he will be back with his longtime singing partner Darryl Stallings for the Step of Faith Christmas Concert today and Saturday at Camp Cale in Perquimans County. Both shows are at 7 p.m.
Last year Overman missed the Christmas show because of other responsibilities, including serving as president of the N.C. State Firefighters Association.
But now he plans to focus on music ministry full-time.
“I have been excited about that,” Overman said.
Overman also has new responsibilities as a new member of the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners. A former member of the Elizabeth City-Pasquoank Board of Education, Overman, a registered Republican, won an at-large seat on the commission in last month’s election and was sworn in for a four-year term last week.