FIND OUT FRIDAY with Fire Inspector/Investigator Thomas Raper

  1. Tell readers a little bit about yourself.

My name is Thomas Raper and I am 37 years old.  I am married to a wonderful lady in the healthcare profession and we have 3 kids.  I have a pretty busy career in the fire service, working full time in the fire marshal’s office for Hickory Fire Department, a volunteer firefighter with South Fork Volunteer Fire Department, and I teach fire training classes part time through local community colleges. 

2. How did you get into the fire service?

I actually grew up in the fire service.  My dad became a volunteer firefighter with the West Edgecombe VFD near Rocky Mount, NC in 1976.  Some of my earliest memories are going on calls, being at the station, and riding in parades with him.  Growing up my dream was to be a firefighter; and my toys, books, videos, etc. showed that!  We moved to Lincoln County when I was 13 and he joined the South Fork VFD in Lincoln County.  As soon as I was old enough at 16 years old, I joined and immediately started taking training classes.  After high school, I graduated from Gaston College with a Fire Protection Technology degree.  In 2004, I started working with the City of Hickory Fire Department as a Fire & Life Safety Educator.  It actually has become the family business in a way.  My dad, me, my brother, and both of my cousins are firefighters.  My wife and mom were both on the auxiliary.  In fact, my kids are now interested in it to the point I when I watch them play I see myself at that age.

3. How long have you been doing fire inspections/investigations?

8 years.  I began transitioning into this position toward the end of 2012.

4. What is your favorite part of working in the fire service?

I would say the networking and friendships you develop.  Don’t get me wrong, helping the community and helping keep people safe are important to me.  The adrenaline rushes we get help too!  However, the fire service gives you a chance to develop friendships that last a lifetime with people who aren’t just a coworker, their family.  You get to network with people across the state and nation, and sometimes globally, who share your passion; which enables you to hear some good stories and learn a lot.  Sometimes you even get your picture in a children’s book on fire safety (thanks to Maria)!

5. How do you help citizens stay safe by doing inspections?

As an inspector, we keep people safe by eliminating hazards.  We go into all commercial buildings to be sure they are compliant with applicable fire codes, ordinances, and laws.  We look for things like extension cords, blocked exits, junk piled up, chemicals, out of date fire protection equipment (sprinklers, fire alarms, extinguishes, etc.), and to see safe practices are being carried out.  Many times, we can stop something bad happening before it starts.  All of our fire codes were developed because of a past tragedy that could have been prevented.  One thing I am adamant about is incorporating my fire educator skills into my fire inspections.  Telling you something is wrong does no good unless you understand why and what can be done differently.

6. What do you do when you’re called in to investigate a fire?

On an investigation our purpose is to determine the origin and cause of the fire.  We examine everything using science.  We do this using the scientific method and examine things like wood char, burn patters, smoke behavior, heat movement, and the general condition of the property before and after the fire.  We take a lot of photos and do interviews while looking for evidence.  Our goal is to determine exactly where the fire started, how it started, and how it moved/grew after it got going.  The purpose of this is to prevent accidental fires from happening again and to bring justice to someone who intentionally sets a fire.

7. I know you don’t inspect people’s homes, but what are a few home fire safety measures citizens should take?

The most important would definitely be have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in your home.  Smoke alarms really do save lives.  If you need help with checking yours or getting them, call your local fire department.  Have and practice a home escape plan with your family.  Make it a race, or game, to see who can get out the fastest!  Also, just basic caution and common sense when doing things such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, decorating, etc. goes a long way.

8. Do you have an arson dog or an animal that helps you investigate fires?

Unfortunately, no.  We do work with the State Bureau of Investigation on anything that we would need one and they are great to work with.  However, the research has been started on the possibility of one of our investigators getting a dog at our office.

9. You recently received a scholarship to go back to school. Can you tell us about it and what you’ll be studying?

I recently was awarded a scholarship from the NC Fire Marshal’s Association.  This was to continue finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Service Administration with a concentration in Fire Investigations through Columbia Southern University.  This degree will give me added knowledge and skills to do my job better, in turn helping to keep our community safer.  In addition, it will help me to one day hopefully move up the ladder to a higher position in the department.

10. What do you like to do when you’re not working at the fire department?

In what little spare time I have I love spending time with my family. I am a model railroader, research history of local railroads, and take my kids out to watch trains any chance I get.  We have season passes to Tweetsie Railroad, and that’s where you find us nearly every other weekend.  Occasionally my wife and I get to go antiquing or exploring down the backroads (no interstate driving here).  I’m also a huge Ghostbusters and Power Rangers fan, and yes, I have props, costumes, and collectibles.  A couple of times a year, I love escaping to the beach!

11. What’s one interesting fact about you that many people don’t know?

I love to cook.  I do cakes, meals, and other stuff, but my favorite would be the grill.  I love cooking outdoors on my grills.  My specialty though?  Eastern NC style pig pickings.  It’s a family job, working with my wife, parents, and brother.  We spend all day cooking an entire hog over wood coals and making the traditional sides that go with it.

12. If a youngster wanted to join the fire service, what are a few things you think they should know?

It is a great job and you’ll love it.  This is a job where you get out of it what you put into it.  Do your best and do good in school.  Those things that you say you’ll never use again after school like algebra, report writing, chemistry, and so on; yeah you use those daily in some cases so pay attention now! 

13. Any additional thoughts or comments?

First of all, thanks to you, Maria, for asking me to do this.  I always love working with you on your projects. 

We love our jobs but being a fire inspector or investigator can be a tough job.  People get mad at us sometimes just because we are doing our job.  I just ask that everyone remember, if you encounter one of us, we are there to help you be safe.  At the end of the day, we want everyone to make it home and be safe in their homes as well.  We say a huge thank you to everyone in the community we work with.

______________________________________________________________________________

Thanks so much to Thomas Raper for being today’s FIND OUT FRIDAY. He’s a fantastic firefighter, and a terrific educator/inspector/investigator; not to mention a great friend, too. Thomas and I have worked together for years and have been fortunate to work as co-instructors teaching others about Fire & Life Safety Education.

Thomas exemplifies the role of community servant as I believe was shown in his interview today.

Do you have additional questions for Thomas or about becoming a firefighter/inspector/investigator? If so, feel free to comment below or email me at mjbostian@gmail.com and I will be glad to get those answered for you!

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