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After 27 years, Wells steps away from leadership role

South Boston News
South Hill Fire Chief Rosser Wells flips the fire department calendar to December, his last full month with the SHVFD before he will retire full-time. / July 29, 2020
South Hill Fire Chief Rosser Wells ended his 27-year tenure leading the department and headed into retirement earlier this month.

He is being succeeded by South Hill Fire Department administrator and deputy chief Michael Vaughn.

Wells said while he stepped down as chief, he will continue to serve the department for another six months. His full retirement is planned for Jan. 3, 48 years to the day he first joined the town’s fire department.

Lifelong friend and Southside Rescue Squad treasurer Floyd Edmonds said, “Wells has always been a great leader. His first words, when called to support the rescue squad were ‘what do you need us to do?’ He is going to be missed.”

His leadership of the fire service was similarly praised by John Zubrod of the Lake Gaston Fire Department, who credits Wells with helping to establish the Lake Gaston Fire Department in 1990. “Without his leadership, friendship and advice we would not have been able to get off the ground.”

Wells said he joined the department in January 1973 following in the footsteps of his father, Donnie Wells, who served as a volunteer firefighter for 49 years. “It was the only thing I knew,” said Wells, who remembers hanging out at the fire station with his dad and riding on the fire trucks during parades as a youth.

In addition to his dad, he credits Boney Hudson and Jimmy Crowder with molding him into the firefighter and leader he became. It was Crowder who first encouraged Wells to take on the role of Fire Chief.

Wells recalls there were no fancy firehouses when he joined the department as a 21-year old just out of college. He didn’t volunteer for the glory. “To be a volunteer you must have two things, love in your heart for what you’re doing and be crazy as hell. Not many people are willing to go out at 2 or 3 in the morning to help someone they don’t know,” he said.

Wells is often credited for his leadership in fire prevention, which he brushes off. Instead he speaks of the support South Hill and other fire departments in Mecklenburg County have received from elected officials and town residents through the years.

“The Board of Supervisors have always been good to the fire departments. They have never turned us down on our requests and the Town of South Hill is the same way. If we were able to show the need and the purpose, they supported us,” Wells said.

He is especially appreciative of the backing over the years from South Hill Town Manager Kim Callis, former South Hill Mayor Earl Horne, and the members of the South Hill Town Council, including council members Millie Bracey, Lisa Jordan and Glenn Allen, who recently left office.

Zubrod said South Hill and the other departments throughout Mecklenburg County have benefited immeasurably from Wells’ 47 years of service, in which he became widely recognized as a distinguished member of his profession. “Rosser has taken the lead on many advances for the fire departments and the citizens. His advice is greatly valued and will be greatly missed.”

The fire service has undergone many changes since Wells first joined. “When I started there were no air packs. Now we can’t operate without them,” he said. Training opportunities have also improved, something he credits to the late J.E. “Jimmy” Crowder.

“Jimmy wrote to the state to get a training center. He wrote the letter the day before he was killed in a motorcycle accident. We found out a few months later it was approved, and we got a $450,000 state of the art facility in La Crosse.” Before the training center was built, all training was done at the local fire houses.

The number of calls to the department has increased over the years. South Hill responded to more than 600 calls last year.

When asked to identify his greatest accomplishments during his years as chief, Wells said, “In my 27 years, no one was hurt or killed, and we never failed to answer a single call. In the last year we averaged 13-1/2 people at each call and were out the door in under two minutes.”

He’s also proud that no one ran against him for chief in 27 years. “There comes a time to step back. This year has been a tough year,” he said. He was at the scene when Brian’s Steak House burned. His wife Carleen managed the restaurant for 37 years. “I never saw them [the firefighters] work so hard to put something out. Half of them worked at Brian’s at some point.”

Less than a month later, he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of one of his best friends, Calvin “Sput” Jones, a longtime member of the South Boston Fire Department. Wells said he realized “it was time to make a change.”

During his 47 years, there were tough times. Wells said the worst day, but one that ended well, came when D.T. Vaughan suffered a stroke while at the fire station in South Hill. Wells credits Brandon and Michael Vaughan — no relation — with saving D.T.’s life. “They knew what to do. The squad came immediately, and D.T. was at MCV in Richmond within the hour.”

Wells said today D.T. is doing fine, but the experience left a mark on him. “I saw someone my age go from being healthy to struggling to live.” At the same time, Wells said the experience brought the department closer together. Wells or another member of the department would visit Vaughan every day and they all prayed together with the department chaplain.

There were also good times; one occurred at a structure fire at a home on High Street. The firefighters were able to safely pull a bedridden women from a burning home. “Everything went right that night.”

“I had great times with the fire department and will miss it,” Wells said — before adding that there are some things he might not miss so much, in particular the responsibility of being a fire chief. “You are responsible for everyone and everything and you’re expected to go to every call.”

He said he’s enjoying going to bed at night and not worrying about if or when the next fire call will happen.

Wells thanked his wife and family for supporting him during his time serving the people of South Hill. He thanked the community and all the people who called to share their support after hearing of his retirement.

His advice to the county and the town of South Hill as he steps back from leading the department is to try to keep, as long as possible, a volunteer fire department because he believes volunteers are more invested since the desire to serve is “in their heart.”

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