Fire and Service

Caring for community is the top goal for new Western Wake chiefs

When Cary and Morrisville each welcomed new fire chiefs late last year, both men said they took the job with similar motivation: to support the departments and communities that have supported them over the years.

As the chiefs look to the future, each is challenged to maintain quality service as more people move to the area. Along with this perennial issue, they face concerns as unique as the two neighboring towns.

Chief Mike Cooper, a 31-year veteran of the fire service, was promoted in October to lead Cary’s fire department. “Mike has impressed me as a deep thinker, respected leader and caring human being,” said town manager Sean Stegall, when the move was announced.

Mike Cooper, Cary

Mike Cooper recalls many meaningful role models and mentors over the years. He credits family members, teachers, coaches, friends and colleagues with a part in his success. His grandmother was a central figure, instilling in him a strong sense of family and community.

His career began in 1986 when a close high school friend encouraged him to join what was then the Durham Highway Volunteer Fire Department, which served Cooper’s tight-knit community off Ebenezer Church Road in Raleigh.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was a really good fit for me,” he said. “It allowed me to give back to the community that I grew up in.”

Later, Durham Highway Fire Department Chief Vernon Jones gave him his first full-time job, but insisted Cooper keep pursuing his college degree.

He joined the Raleigh Fire Department in 1991, working his way up through the ranks over the next 15 years. He served as captain in the training division, and assumed responsibility for North Carolina’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, overseeing 170 staff.

When the assistant chief of logistics position opened up with the Cary Fire Department in 2005, Cooper moved to Cary. He rounded out his experience through multiple roles over the years, becoming chief last October.

“As fire chief, I wanted to be able to help people along the way – I wanted to be able to give back,” Cooper said.

His goals for the department are shaped by the 2017 Cary Community Plan, and that means prioritizing the health, safety and development of fire department personnel.

“The vision was to keep Cary great,” Cooper said. “My responsibility is to make sure that we’re keeping the fire department great.”

New challenges range from dealing with Cary’s continued growth to training for more than fire response. Cooper said the fire department’s role has expanded to “all risk” response which, in addition to fires, could include response to weather incidents or civil unrest. Committing more resources to professional development will ensure the department is ready.

He leads collaborations with local fire departments. For example, Cary recently partnered with Morrisville and Apex to provide shared dispatch service, increasing efficiency and a more seamless response between the towns and local volunteer fire departments.

“Ultimately, my greatest responsibility as fire chief is to take care of the 240 men and women of the Cary Fire Department,” he said. “If I do that, they take care of and provide exceptional service to the people of Cary.”

Outside of work, Cooper has a wife and three children. His oldest plays baseball at North Carolina State University, while the two younger attend Leesville Road High School in Raleigh. He’s coached his sons in baseball over the years, and remains involved with the Leesville Road Pride Athletic Club, as well as his church, Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Scott Criddle was named Morrisville’s fire chief in November. “Scott has passion and commitment for the fire service profession and for the firefighters and staff in Morrisville Fire and Rescue that serve our community every day,” said Martha Paige, the town manager.

Scott Criddle, Morrisville

Scott Criddle didn’t grow up thinking he’d be a fireman. Raised in upstate New York, his dad owned a construction business, and Criddle thought he’d carry on the family tradition.

He joined the Army Reserve when he graduated high school, but even with that supplemental income, there wasn’t enough construction work to keep Criddle in New York. He left the Reserve and moved south at the suggestion of an aunt in Cary, where construction was booming.

Things began to change for Criddle when the Morrisville Fire Department invited him to be a volunteer firefighter in 1995.

“I was getting the idea that I really liked it,” he recalled. “It was stable work, and there were benefits, and I enjoyed it way more than banging nails on a house.”

In 1999, as Morrisville grew, he secured a paid position as a firefighter, and from there, he did what he calls “the ride through the ranks” – riding the truck as an engineer, followed by a promotion to lieutenant, then captain, then battalion chief.

He went to college later in life, using grants through the North Carolina EMS Squad to help fund his way. and focusing on the skills he’d need to continue his work with the fire department.

When the fire chief role opened up, Criddle admits he still enjoyed being out on the truck. At the same time, he’d become embedded in the fire department, helping with the department’s accreditation process and getting to know the people and the inner workings of the fire department.

He understood that the Morrisville Fire Department needed to continue moving in a positive direction. The people inside the department and with the town thought he was the person to make that happen. He took on the role of chief last November.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” he said. “I’m here for the town, whatever they need.”

Moving forward, Criddle says his two biggest challenges are keeping up with the town’s growth and staffing his department.

This means keeping an eye on where growth is headed, looking at where fire stations should be built and how they’ll be staffed.

Staffing is its own issue. There are more positions open than available firefighters, and that puts the department in a constant hiring cycle, he says. The application cycle used to open and close, but now they take applications until all positions are filled.

“Really there is little that we won’t try, except lowering our standards,” he said. “These people can be fighting fire or doing CPR, and everything in between – we absolutely need to be able to trust them to do the right thing.”

When he’s not on the job, the avid outdoorsman enjoys hunting and fishing. Criddle and his wife like to travel, and his two boys, ages 17 and 12, are both lacrosse players. One perk with the new job, he says, is a more predictable schedule that allows him to be at those lacrosse games more frequently.

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