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A Wilson native is headed to the coast after recently being named the fire chief in Elizabeth City.
While Corey Mercer has spent the last 24 years rising through the ranks of the Rocky Mount Fire Department, his career in the fire service was spurred while playing football at Fike High School.
“Some of my football buddies and I all wanted to be firefighters because one of our teammates’ dads was a firefighter named Leroy Barnes,” Mercer recalled. “He’d give us rides home from practice, he’d come to our games and he was someone we really admired and respected.”
After graduation, though, Mercer headed into the U.S. Army where he worked in field artillery during Desert Storm. At age 21, he returned to eastern North Carolina and Barnes, a Wilson deputy fire chief, helped Mercer start a career in the fire service. In 1994, Mercer joined the Rocky Mount Fire Department and in 1999, the flood brought on by Hurricane Floyd devastated his work and home communities.
“It was very intense. It was devastating to see our city divided by the water,” Mercer recalled. “Those first couple of days were like being in a war zone trying to get people to safety and deal with the rising water.”
The experience opened his eyes to the fact that the fire service wasn’t just about responding to blazes, but about mitigating a variety of hazards with other emergency responders. As he rose through the ranks, Mercer expanded his training and took on more administration roles.
“What I learned the most was how to deal with different types of people and different personalities,” he said. “I learned how important it was to develop leaders and get people to work together as a team. Like everything else, there are people from all walks of life in this profession, but you have to figure out how to deal with everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and put it together to help the community.”
Through the years, his parents, James and Bettie Rose Mercer, watched him excel professionally and volunteer in the community.
“What I’m going to miss most is the community itself,” he said. “I coach football and wrestling, I teach school on my days off. I’m going to really miss that because it is an opportunity to impact those kids and mentor them the way Leroy Barnes encouraged me when I was coming up in school.”
Mercer’s final day in Rocky Mount is Sunday and on Tuesday, he’ll start his role as fire chief in Elizabeth City.