The bravery of Mekisha Mitchell

Despite her seemingly timid demeanor, Mekisha Mitchell is considered among her fellow volunteers at the Tilden Fire Department to be one of their fiercest firefighters. She’s only been an official member of the department for a couple of years, although she was responding to calls with her husband, a fellow volunteer firefighter, long before that. (Photo by Adam Armour)

Despite her seemingly timid demeanor, Mekisha Mitchell is considered among her fellow volunteers at the Tilden Fire Department to be one of their fiercest firefighters. She’s only been an official member of the department for a couple of years, although she was responding to calls with her husband, a fellow volunteer firefighter, long before that. (Photo by Adam Armour)

By ADAM ARMOUR
News Coordinator

Despite being described by her fellow firefighters in ways that made it sound as if she might step inside an inferno and dowse the flames with an incredulous look, there’s nothing about Mekisha Mitchell that seems particularly superheroic at first blush.

I am ItawambaAs she sits down at a table inside Tilden Fire Department, her demeanor is reserved. For someone who semi-regularly comes face-to-face with fiery death, she seems surprisingly uncomfortable with a one-on-one interview with an unintimidating reporter.

Her first words are hushed, but to the point:

“I don’t like any of this,” she says.

Flames are one thing; spotlights are another entirely.

“I’m a quiet person,” she says. “I don’t like attention.”

Whether she likes it or not, her brothers of the flame feel Mitchell deserves a little love. Not just because she’s a woman, although female firefighters are still largely a rarity, representing less than four percent of the firefighting population. It’s because Mitchell is a great firefighter by any measure: Brave, but not fearless; tough, but soft-hearted; quick to act and quicker to react. Any ideas that Mitchell can’t keep up with her male counterparts should be set aflame and left to burn.

Mitchell’s helmet is easy to spot when placed among those of her peers. Hers is the only one with pink lettering. (Photo by Adam Armour)

Mitchell’s helmet is easy to spot when placed among those of her peers. Hers is the only one with pink lettering. (Photo by Adam Armour)

“I always want to be treated like the rest of them,” she says. That’s pretty much guaranteed, thanks to the nature of what she and her fellow volunteer firefighters do. Beneath the helmet, she’s a firefighter the same as the rest. Fire doesn’t take gender into consideration. Why should anyone else?

Mitchell has been a member of Tilden’s small volunteer fire department for nearly two years, although she’s been responding to fires for longer than that. Years ago, she would ride along when her husband responded to a call. She quickly found she enjoyed it.

She claims her decision to officially join the department was, at least in part, due to the “influence of others” — those “others” being her husband, specifically. If she was going to ride along with him, she might as well pitch in.

“Really, it wasn’t by my choice,” she says, grinning as she glances in her husband’s direction.

Across the room, Mitchell’s husband, pacing as she talks, shrugs his shoulders.

“We needed EMRs and we needed firefighters, and I knew she was a hard worker,” he says.

That matters in small volunteer departments like Tilden’s. With only a handful of regular, consistent responders, every member of the department has to be able to adapt to a variety of roles. Whatever needs doing has to be done, regardless of who responds to a call. Nobody’s being paid; nobody has to be there. Reliability is priceless.

“In little departments like ours, everybody has to pitch in and do everything,” she says. “There are no set roles. You do what needs to be done.”

Her first fire was a blazing house trailer in Tremont. She hauled hose from the truck to the house and was tasked with entering the structure to look for hot spots. It was exhilarating, she said, but also terrifying.

“You’re trained to do things, but you never know what might happen. And that’s scary,” she says. “Things don’t always fall into place in the way you’ve been trained.”

That fear never goes away, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Comfort leads to complacency, and that in turn can lead to deadly mistakes.

Mitchell says fear keeps her on her toes.

“I still get nervous every time I get a call,” she says.

But that’s also what she loves. It’s the kind of thrill she doesn’t get from her 9-to-5 as a leather cutter at Max Home.

“I enjoy the excitement,” she says.

Mitchell shows off her gear. Although the department has other female volunteers, she’s the only one who suits up to battle blazes. (Photo by Adam Armour)

Mitchell shows off her gear. Although the department has other female volunteers, she’s the only one who suits up to battle blazes. (Photo by Adam Armour)

But asked what her most memorable moment has been being a firefighter, her answer isn’t nearly as dramatic as might be expected. No pulling survivors from fiery wreckage or escaping a building as it collapses. Instead, she says she’ll always remember and cherish the training sessions with her fellow firefighters. Those moments of fellowship, she says, are important to her.

“I’ve lived in this area my whole life, just a couple minutes down the road,” she says. “When you get together for training, there’s a fellowship there.”

Mitchell said she’s known her fellow firefighters the entirety of her life.

Ditto the people she serves at the department. There’s a bond that comes with that, and a feeling of responsibility she knows she shares with all the rest of them.

“Most of the people in this department are people I’ve grown up with and known my whole life,” she says. “I always know someone’s got my back.”

That camaraderie is, at least in part, what keeps her suiting up, in spite of the fear, in spite of the danger.

“I choose to do this,” she says, her face looking serious. “If something happens to me, that was my choice. But I was doing it to help somebody.”

And just like that, any question of Mitchell’s superheroics goes up in smoke.

adam.armour@journalinc.com
Twitter: @admarmr

About Adam Armour

Adam Armour has been writing and taking photographs for "The Itawamba County Times" since 2005. His words and pictures have earned 18 Mississippi Press Association Awards, including several "Best of" category recognitions. He has written and independently published one novel and is currently working on a second.

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