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Volunteer firefighters put life on line for no pay

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VANCEBORO, N.C. -

Every day people right here in the East are putting their lives on the line for no pay.

They're volunteer firefighters. They're the ones who rush into burning buildings and other dangerous situations when many others run in the opposite direction.

40-year-old Nino Tokhli of Vanceboro balances his volunteer firefighting duties with a full-time career as a businessman and single dad. He runs a gas station in Havelock. When he's not wiping down tables or handling customers, he's out fighting fires in Vanceboro.

"That's my dream. What I want to be: a firefighter. I say one day I'm going to own my own business, and become a volunteer firefighter, and I did," said Tokhli.

Vanceboro has no paid firefighters. It's up to volunteers to respond to alarms, whether it be a car accident, house fire, or medical emergency.

"Some of them have jobs, they have their own business, they ride around town, so that helps out some of the daytime. They can leave their job and respond to the alarm," said Chief Stacy Lewis of the Vanceboro Fire Department.

Lewis says much of the department's equipment is paid for with the county's fire tax.  He says the tax would be much higher if it had to cover firefighter salaries too.

"Being a volunteer saves the county a lot of money because you're providing a service free," said Lewis.

For Tokhli, juggling responsibilities as a small business owner, firefighter, and parent isn't easy.

His day usually starts by taking his 9-year-old daughter Layla to school.

"I like him being a volunteer firefighter," said Layla Tokhli, "because he saves people's lives."

After dropping his daughter off, Tokhli heads to the fire department to inspect the trucks and fill out paperwork. Then he has a one hour drive to Havelock, where he spends much of his day at the store, working there seven days a week.

He's not able to respond to every alarm, but he goes when he can.

"If I can't go, I can't go. It beats me up inside because I can't go," said Tokhli.

Tokhli immigrated to North Carolina after growing up in the city of Jerusalem in Palestine.
He says the people of Vanceboro accepted him with open arms. Putting his life on the line for theirs is one way of saying thanks.

Tokhli has been a captain with the fire department since 2001. He's one of 65 volunteers.

Lewis says using volunteer instead of paid firefighters saves Craven County hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

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