February 9, 2024
North Charleston Fire Department Captain Tian Griffieth is in the care business. Yes, he loves the job, but his bread and butter is loving his people and his community.
Tian’s grandfather worked 40 years at the port in Charleston and instilled in his grandson the importance of a pension and job security. He tried his hand at the port and quickly knew it wasn’t for him, but he kept his grandfather’s sound advice in the forefront of his mind. Tian set his sights on law school and stability as an attorney.
Entering adulthood, a young Tian faced significant economic uncertainty. He was trying to set his life’s course during the 2007 recession, a challenge that would ultimately play a big role in his journey to fire service. Still in school to become an attorney, Tian started volunteering with the Charleston Rescue Company in December 2008.
“I said, ‘Oh, this is great,’ but I had never had any and still at that point had no intentions on being on the fire department,” Tian said of his early days on the Rescue Company.
It was during a Rescue Company response to an entrapment that Tian was approached and asked to consider volunteering at Pine Ridge in Summerville. Somewhat reluctantly, Tian paid them a visit.
“I went over there, and I remember sitting down and walking into a place where nobody looked like me… it wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable, it was just nobody who looked like me,” he explained. “I was kinda used to it because nobody on the Rescue Squad looked like me.”
That didn’t diminish his interest in volunteering. If you’ve spent any time around the fire service, you’ve heard some iteration of the phrase ‘catching the bug.’ It didn’t take too long before that feeling started settling over Tian.
“While I’m sitting in school, I kinda got that bug going in my stomach and I’m crossing my fingers hoping that they don’t get anything while I’m in class and I’m like, ‘I shouldn’t be thinking about this kinda stuff,” he continued, “The excitement and the draw, I thought, ‘I really like doing this.’”
Tian researched the starting pay for an attorney, about $27,000, and compared it to the starting pay for a firefighter, around $29,000. The two-thousand-dollar salary discrepancy made all the difference in the world for Tian, who was still weary of post-recession economic conditions and had kept his grandfather’s advice about stability close to heart.
“That two grand sold me. When you’re 22, 23 years old, two grand is a lot of money,” he said.
Never one to forget where he comes from, Tian deeply values his early days as a volunteer.
“The opportunity to be there with Chief Ben Waring at Pine Ridge is something I always think about and always treasure because it allowed me to not only really see the work and do it for free, but also do it in a place where I understood that everything we did extremely mattered,” Tian reminisced of his time volunteering at Pine Ridge.
Tian’s first career job as a firefighter was with Summerville Fire & Rescue with Chief Richard Waring. After a few years with some experience under his belt and a desire to expand his horizons, he made the difficult decision to leave Summerville. He applied to two departments: North Charleston Fire Department and St. John’s Fire District.
St. John’s hired him immediately while he got a rejection letter from North Charleston. At St. John’s, Tian experienced something for the first time: Black coworkers.
“I thought it was just me,” he remembered. Still a young man, Tian found new perspective on the job from the older Black men on the department.
But his time at St. Johns would be brief. A few weeks after starting the job, Tian got a call from North Charleston letting him know he’d been selected for their Direct Hire Academy. He’d been around long enough to know frequent department hopping was frowned upon, but this was an opportunity he couldn’t say no to.
“I sat inside County Chamber with probably 400 people trying to get a job at North Charleston,” he recalled.
“When I got to North Charleston, I had been a firefighter for a few years and thought I had some experience,” he added, “But I was extremely intimidated when I learned about some of the things I didn’t know, and I was surrounded by so many talented people with so much experience… One year in North Charleston is three anywhere else.”
Charleston and the surrounding area are steeped in rich and nationally significant history. Tian submersed himself in learning the history of the North Charleston Fire Department.
“In 1969, North Charleston hired their first African American firefighter, Charles Middleton, and when I think about race relations at that time, he came into a very scary place just following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968… I can’t imagine that amount of fear,” Tian said.
Tian recognizes that trailblazers like Charles Middleton are who make it possible for him to be a member of the North Charleston Fire Department.
“We took the first step a very, very long time ago to make it possible for someone like myself to work here and I am always extremely proud of that, to work for a place that champions that ‘Hey, you know, this is a place for everybody, this is a place for all races and all walks of life,’ and we mean that when we say that,” he said.
At the end of the day, the fire service is a community service, and the more perspective you have, the better you can fulfill that duty.
“We get the best, we get the most bang for our buck, when you bring in people from different walks of life because they have different experiences and then our shared experiences are what make us great,” Tian explained.
Tian’s latest project is tightly under wraps, but it's all about understanding the cultures of the people you serve and how to best demonstrate your compassion.
The reason why this Captain at North Charleston Fire Department is thinking about how to show grieving families they’re there for them is simple: “I got caught up in the care business.”