Firefighters: Facing mortality every day

“I love being a firefighter.  There is no greater feeling than watching something that was lifeless when you got there change to a breathing human being when you leave; or seeing someone who is pinned in a car on arrival, but is walking and going home to their family when you leave.

“A firefighter’s life is very stressful.  It’s hard to go home the next day and see your beautiful son and wife sleeping peacefully knowing that there is a family out there planning a funeral for a toddler, or dealing with an insurance company replacing the house they lost the night before. . .

“It’s not always easy for me, but I put the bad memories in a box in the back of my head, and know I did my best. The good memories are the ones that keep me going. There is no better feeling than getting a thank you from someone you’ve never met before because you resuscitated their grandfather, so he will be at Christmas this year, or someone is enjoying their living room because we put the fire out.”

Jonathon Dixon, Baton Rouge firefighter

By Luke Jenkins

For the average adult going to work, the idea that you might not come back that day isn’t something one usually has to worry about. For a firefighter and his or her family, facing mortality is a part of the morning routine.

“Me, my wife, and my girls – when I came on shift – we would always have a family hug before I left to go to work, just in case I didn’t come back home,” said Oxford firefighter Rob Johnson. “They knew I loved them before I left, and if I didn’t come home, they were comfortable knowing that we had that hug, and I left in a good mood.”

Johnson is one of about 60 firefighters with the Oxford Fire Department that currently maintains four stations.  The firefighters work 48 hour shifts on duty and are off 96 hours. The OFD plans to shut down a couple of stations this year in a consolidation that will leave three stations.

Fire Chief Cary Sallis, who has been fighting fires since age 14 when he was a volunteer firefighter with his dad, said the consolidation is a tactical move.

Oxford has grown a lot in the past 10 years, and some of the stations aren’t in beneficial locations. Sallis said the consolidation is happening because a new station has been proposed.

For Captain Buster Hollowell, firefighting is a way of life. The second generation firefighter who has been fighting fires for the past 30 years said the start of every day is usually the same, but with different details.

The day begins at 7 a.m. checking the trucks. Every crew checks its trucks to make sure everything is running and operable, and Hollowell makes sure all stations are manned.

Once everything is in place and prepared, firefighters take an hour to work out and exercise. By 9 a.m., they are in uniform and ready to perform daily duties, such as classroom visits, cleaning the station and other duties.

“We have to be able to drop what we’re doing at a moment’s notice and respond,” said Hollowell.

A firefighter could be taking a shower or eating a meal, but when the buzzer sounds he or she has to immediately respond.

To become a firefighter, a candidate has to pass the Candidate Physical Agility Test. The grueling test is based on the demands of the actual job. It involves walking on a stair-stepper with 75 pounds.

When finished, the candidate removes 25 pounds, and has to drag a hose 65 feet around a drum, then pull the rest to him or her. They also have to carry tools around a barrel and back without dropping them.

Part of the tests requires candidates to raise a ladder two different ways, perform a forceful entry, crawl through a maze, drag a 200 pound dummy 55 feet around a barrel and back, and finish four sets of pull-ups and push-ups. All of it must be completed in 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

Hollowell said it doesn’t matter how big someone is; what matters is their lungs, leg strength, and their heart.

“It comes down to heart and how much you want it,” he said. “It’s all about heart.”

Lieutenant Chad Ferguson said he prepared for the CPAT by strapping on an 80 pound weight vest, going to the Lafayette Commodore’s football stadium and running up and down the bleachers. If a candidate passes the CPAT, they are sent to the Mississippi Fire Academy, located in Pearl.

Parnell Boyd is one of the newest hires.

“My first couple of weeks here, I was always on edge,” he said, “but once the tone rang, I just went through the motions I was taught, and everything was alright.”

Boyd said his first real fire out of the academy was a lesson that couldn’t be taught there. He was walking out of the grocery store when he was alerted that there was a car fire near his home. When he made it to the fire, the chief handed him the fire hose nozzle.

“At the academy, it’s a two-team, so I’m thinking there is someone behind me,” he said. “The front person is supposed to just direct where the water goes, and the person behind him is holding the pressure of the hose.”

When Parnell opened the nozzle, he realized this wasn’t the academy anymore. There was no one else there with him.

“So I’m moon-walking backwards with the hose, and I cut it off, look behind me and realize, I’m going to have to figure this out,” he said. “I realized I had to just man up and grab it myself.  We got it put out, and the house didn’t catch on fire.  But it was a good reality check, and I know now I have to imagine (fighting fires) as if there is no one else there with you.”

The firefighters say anyone interested in doing the job should think about the position, and how it will affect them and their families. Many said they continue to do the job because they want to help people and enjoy the brotherhood formed by putting their lives in each other’s hands.