A New Bern Fire Department tradition stretching back nearly 140 years — a tradition that was disrupted two years ago — was reinstated with an official vote from city aldermen on Tuesday night.
The city’s custom of placing the name of the mayor in office at the time a new fire engine is purchased on the side of the vehicle was halted in 2014 when aldermen voted to remove former mayor Lee Bettis’ name from a fire truck. The decision came following his arrest the previous May on charges of DWI, reckless driving and misdemeanor child abuse.
During the Board of Aldermen’s meeting in December, newly-elected 1st Ward Alderman Sabrina Bengel, who hosts a weekly radio show with Bettis, made a motion that his name be restored to the fire engine. The motion passed on a 4-2 vote.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, the board voted to approve a resolution calling for the tradition to continue. The resolution states that the mayor will have the option to “respectfully decline the honor” if he or she chooses. In such a case, the engine would remain unnamed.
The resolution passed with a 5-2 vote, with Alderman Jeffrey Odham and Mayor Dana Outlaw voting against it.
During public comments, several residents spoke out in favor of the tradition. Former New Bern volunteer fire chief Buddy Wetherington thanked the aldermen who voted to return Bettis’ name to the city’s fire engine.
“I ask aldermen to consider keeping this tradition of 150 years intact,” said Wetherington.
Former city firefighter Richard Blythe urged the board to vote in favor of the resolution.
“It’s been a tradition for years and years to put the mayor’s name on there. ... I just wish the board would be kind enough to leave it that way, because of the rich history of the New Bern Fire Department,” said Blythe.
According to the resolution, the tradition of naming fire engines for the mayor seated in office at the time of its acquisition dates back to 1879, when the Atlantic Fire and Hook and Ladder Company received a new Silsby steam fire engine, and for the first time added the mayor’s name. Since that time, city fire engines have traditionally been named for the mayor seated at the time of the purchase.
Originally, the city of New Bern Fire-Rescue was comprised of three companies: the Atlantic Fire and Hook and Ladder Company, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1, and the New Bern Fire Company No. 1. The first chartered firefighting organization was the Atlantic Fire and Hook and Ladder Company, which formed on May 14, 1845. The company eventually became inactive when members volunteered for military service at the outbreak of the Civil war.
The New Bern Fire and Steam Engine Company, No. 1 was organized on Jan. 1, 1865, by Union soldiers who remained after the war.