Firefighters Ryan Stokes, Gray Dyal, Mitch Graves and Clay Evans prepare to put out a mock vehicle fire outside East Oktibbeha Fire Station on Friday afternoon. They, along with 20 other trainees, certified firefighters and officers in Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department, are students at an area college or university who are on call to train and respond to emergency calls in the county when not in class. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
Firefighters Gray Dyal, Clay Evans, Kelton Reynolds, Parrish Pettway, Ryan Stokes, Capt. Chris Sartin, Mitch Graves and Calvin Lim stand in front of a firetruck outside East Oktibbeha Fire Station off Highway 82 on Friday afternoon. Each of the volunteer firefighters is currently a student at Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women or East Mississippi Community College who, when they aren't studying, make themselves available to respond to fires, medical calls and car accidents in rural Oktibbeha County.
Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
September 15, 2018 10:03:25 PM
Mississippi State freshman Mitch Graves was walking through the university activities fair on the Drill Field his first week of classes, looking at his different extracurricular options, when someone from one of the booths shouted: "Hey! You wanna be a fireman?"
That was how Graves ended up at East Oktibbeha Fire Station a few nights later, along with several other MSU students, all of whom were interested in volunteering their time responding to emergency calls like medical emergencies, vehicle accidents and, of course, fires. It was that night that the Los Angeles native "fell in love" with firefighting.
"We pulled 591 (a fire truck) out of the bay here, and we took our hydraulic cutters and what's known as the jaws of life, and we practiced vehicle extraction on a small four-door sedan," Graves said. "I hadn't even signed up permanently. They just gave me a set of turn-outs and a helmet and gloves and said, 'This is what you do. Now go do it.'"
A year later, and Graves is one of 24 students either certified or training with the Oktibbeha County Volunteer Fire Department, which has 126 firefighters total. They're all volunteers and on call 24/7.
They attend training at their departments two nights a month, plus a monthly countywide training so each department can work on communications. They respond to calls as they're available -- and the officers recruit students heavily.
"You've got a wealth of youth and a lot of energy and a good aptitude," said Joe Pennell, chief for the Central Oktibbeha Fire Department who has six students volunteering under him. "These people are not dummies that are coming to college. Most of them are going into big careers and ... some of them are looking for careers to go into."
The officer who asked Graves if he wanted to be a fireman is Capt. Chris Sartin, also a student. He became a firefighter as a sophomore at MSU. Six years later and he's worked his way up through officer ranks and is currently volunteering while studying to become certified public accounting at Mississippi University for Women.
"We have a family attitude around here," Sartin said of the firefighters volunteering with him at East Oktibbeha Fire Department, which has 12 college students. "A lot of guys come in just because they're interested in it. As they spend time with us, they form bonds with other members. We look at each other as family and we stick together."
The volunteers in the rural departments come from all kinds of backgrounds, said Pennell and Oktibbeha Fire Services Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan. That includes career firefighters with Starkville Fire Department who volunteer on their days off, paramedics at OCH Regional Medical Center, oil field workers, carpenters, foresters, fathers and husbands.
"Between fire, rescue and first response EMS, we cover a multitude of sins," Rosenhan said. "Everybody that's gotten involved with us is just interested in learning, serving the community and having some satisfaction of helping folks. It's that simple."
The students prove vital because they often can respond to calls when the older volunteer with traditional careers are at work, both Rosenhan and Pennell agreed.
"(They come in thinking) this is an exciting thing," Pennell said. "And then they find out there's more to it than just squirting water on fires. I guess you'd call it maturing. ... Most of the time when you get into the fire service, within a year you're going to see somebody that's not alive. ... And a lot of them change their attitude from just being a big, bad fireman that runs up and down the road with their red light on to somebody that can make some difference in people's lives."
Finding a balance
All the students who join fire departments receive the same order from their chiefs and officers: School comes first.
Firefighter Ryan Stokes, a MSU junior from Selma, Alabama, said if his pager goes off while he is studying or has class, he knows to let other firefighters go instead of him -- though he did slip out of one class with his professor's blessing to respond to his first call when he started a year ago.
"They don't have our class schedule, but if we start slacking on school and it's because of the fire department, they'll have a little talk with us, make sure we're staying on the right path," Stokes said.
Still, he said, it can be hours of work in one week. By Thursday afternoon, he had already responded to five calls last week alone.
Each volunteer completes a 60-hour class and a day at the fire academy to become certified firefighters -- which allows them to actually go into burning buildings -- as well as 80 hours of medical training. That doesn't include department-wide training and whatever optional training they want.
Those hours can be brutal for students having to juggle 15 hours or more of university classes, Pennell said. He had a couple of students this year come to him and tell him they were planning to drop classes or school altogether to devote all their time to becoming certified.
Pennell told them no.
"You do your school first," he said. "We'll work your schedule out next time. Don't feel like I'm going to kick you out just because you can't make the class. ... (With) your weekly training with us, you'll probably go in there and ace the certification class."
Pennell admitted there is a disadvantage to student firefighters -- often by the time they've become certified, they're ready to graduate and move to another city. But other students have already reached officer status by the time they've graduated. Even those who can't go into structure fires because they're "probies" can still respond to calls, help with equipment and go into buildings where fires have been put out to "mop up."
Finding your place
For some students, firefighting on their off time can change their career trajectory.
After his freshman year at MSU, firefighter Chris Evans enrolled in EMT classes at East Mississippi Community College and became certified that summer. When school started back, he changed his major from mechanical engineering to pre-nursing.
He had come to love the medical calls and the people he met on them.
"We encounter people at their worst moments," Evans said. "And even at their worst moments, they're still extremely grateful for us to be willing to do what we do. I think it was just the people and their attitudes that ultimately made me choose that because while we do see the worst in humanity at times, we also see the best."
Pennell said many of the students choose careers based on something they experienced while volunteering. He's had firefighters who became law enforcement officers, lawyers, even medical flight nurses.
And then there are those who become career firefighters.
"It's just kind of like being in law enforcement," Pennell said. "Firefighting, you kind of get it in your blood."
That was the case for Graves, who now plans to become a contract firefighter, meaning he'd be among emergency personnel deployed to accompany military troops and other groups on assignments overseas.
"With contract firefighting, usually you work six months on, six months off," Graves said. "(You can go to the) Middle East, possibly in South America, but there are also opportunities even in Antarctica."
Even if that doesn't work out, or is only temporary, Graves said, he wants the fire service to have some impact on his life as he gets older.
"There's nothing like fighting fire," he said. "There really isn't."
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