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Longtime Advocate of Emergency Preparation & Fire Prevention, Sudderth Retiring

N.C. Emergency Management Director Michael Sprayberry hands Watauga County Fire Marshal and Emergency Management Coordinator the North Carolina Emergency Management Director’s Award on Thursday. Photo courtesy Taylor Marsh

By Jesse Wood

After nearly 40 years of fighting fires and responding to emergencies, Watauga County Fire Marshal/Emergency Management Coordinator Steve Sudderth is retiring. On Thursday, Sudderth received the N.C. Emergency Management Director’s Award.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Sudderth began his career as a volunteer firefighter with the Blowing Rock Volunteer Fire Department in 1978. His brother was a firefighter, too, in Blowing Rock and Boone.

In 1992, Sudderth started working as a fire inspector in Watauga County and in 2007, he became the fire marshal and emergency management coordinator in the county.

“When I started in this business in 1978, there were on average in the U.S. 6,000 [fire-related] deaths a year. Now, we are down to 3,000 in the United States. And call volumes have gone up exponentially as our population has increased,” Sudderth said, responding to a question on how things have changed over the years.

While response is critical, Sudderth said he’s always advocated for emergency preparation and fire safety/prevention. Sudderth recounted two stories during his career that depict the life-saving benefits of preparation, safety and prevention.

One story is set during the blizzard of 1993, when nearly four-feet of snow fell in some parts of the High Country. Sudderth said rescue personnel put on skis at the top of N.C. 194 in the Matney area and skied down the mountain to check on people in their homes.

“As rescuers got to the homes, the people said, ‘You must be frozen. Come in and warm up and get something to eat.’ … They were just ready,” Sudderth recalled. “The expectation should be that you are prepared for these winter emergencies.”

Sudderth said that certain situations are unavoidable and these are the situations where his office steps in and coordinates county resources.

Another story was from around this time of year in 1989. Five siblings, including a baby-sitting 12-year-old Crystal Darby, were inside a home that caught fire. The parents were just down the road building a new home for the family, and if she would have ran for help, the teenager would have been the sole survivor. 

Though the home was quickly engulfed in flames, the electrical fire wasn’t deadly because of a quick-and-smart response from Darby. She investigated the smell of smoke, found the fire and navigated her siblings, most of whom were sleeping at the time, outside of the home and into a safe place. 

“There’s no question had she not reacted properly, we would have had four fatalities and those children would have died,” a younger Sudderth said on an old episode of Rescue 911 with William Shatner. (See video below.)

Just months earlier, Sudderth, who was a volunteer firefighter in Blowing Rock at the time, had taught fire safety tips to Darby’s fifth grade class.

In the 80’s both Sudderth and former Boone Fire Marshal Ronnie Marsh started working with a fire prevention specialist with the State of NC to make fire safety a part of the curriculum in local schools in the High Country. Sudderth noted that all of the fire departments today are heavily involved with fire education in their respective schools and communities.

Speaking on Friday, Sudderth said, “That’s what it’s all about. Safety and prevention are the big stories for me. Yes, you still need the response, but my passion has always been from the safety aspect.”

Along with helping to save lives, Sudderth said that he’s enjoyed working with the citizens over the years. “Working for the people of Watauga County has been a blessing,” Sudderth said. “I’ll miss the people the most definitely.”

Sudderth, who just helped to extinguish the Horton Fire, one of the biggest fires in Watauga County in recent times, said he’s been thinking about retirement for about four years now.

Still healthy, Sudderth said after seeing a couple of his friends, Randy McKinney, an emergency coordinator in Burke County, and Ronnie Greene, an inspector with Watauga County, pass away, he realized he would rather do some other things in life. In particular, Sudderth said he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail and Mountains-to-Sea trail.

“My biggest decisions now will be what time to wake up and how far to walk,” Sudderth said.

Assistant Fire Marshal Taylor Marsh will serve as the interim fire marshal until a new fire marshal is hired.

Dec. 6, 2016.