When James Payne was 16, he became a volunteer firefighter in his Baltimore neighborhood.
Now a 50-year-old division chief with Midway Fire Rescue, Payne has found that same neighborhood feel in Pawleys Island.
“You get to know the people. When you go out on a call, you already know who they are, you’ve seen them in a store,” Payne said. “It was like when I was volunteering when I was younger. … When you start to see the people that you know, it’s a little different.”
A graduate of Landstown High School in Baltimore, Payne spent 28 years with the Baltimore City Fire Department. Payne’s main focus was rescue and special operations, and eventually he worked his way up to captain.
“For me it’s always been a progression, or a succession, to keep moving up the ladder,” Payne said. “For me it was always going for the next goal.”
After retiring, he joined Midway in January of 2015.
“Midway Fire is a great department (and the) perfect combination of people, equipment, training and of course, location,” Payne said.
As division chief, Payne is the department’s health and safety officer, training officer and public information officer.
“Every day it’s about the firefighters,” he said. “I come help them solve their problems (and) make sure they get the right training.”
Payne is also in charge of the Georgetown County Technical Rescue Team, which responds to unusual calls that require specialized training such as a trench rescue or a skydiver stuck in a tree.
“We’re the people you call when everyone else can’t handle the problem,” Payne said.
Payne has bachelor's degrees from Waldorf University and Columbia Southern University and has taught firefighting classes around the United States and the world. He said he enjoys when someone tells him they really got something out of one of his classes. A student recently told him, “I’d follow you anywhere, into any kind of fire. If you told me ‘go in there and take care of business,’ I know that I could trust you.”
Payne and his wife, Katie, have one daughter, Savannah.
His hobbies include surfing, skiing, skydiving and just being at the beach. “That’s where I find peace,” Payne said.
After 30 years on the job, what’s his best advice for a new firefighter?
”No matter where you go, you have to make that place the best because you are the person to make them better,” Payne said.