By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Cary Sallis started out as a firefighter with the College Hill fire company in his mid-teens. As of July 1, he became the new chief of Oxford Fire Department, overseeing the work of 60 safety professionals and 15 reservists.
“My father was a volunteer with the Lafayette County Fire Department,” he said. “They signed a release that let me work with them.”
Sallis, the father of CaraAnne, 13, and Zakery, 7, is married to Kimberly Sallis, who is the director of psychology at North Mississippi Regional Center.
It was after a stint as a diesel mechanic that Cary Sallis heard the call of full-time firefighting.
“Fighting fires is an adrenaline kick,” he said. “We don’t want to see anyone’s house catch fire, but the fact is that houses do catch fire, and we’re there to put them out.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between thrill and terror. Running through a burning building is one thing; running blind is another, such as when the massive Whirlpool appliance factory caught fire in August 2004.
“We had to use thermal cameras to take crews in and out,” Sallis said. “We sat back and looked at it afterward: If the camera battery had died, we would have been lost.”
Even more gut-wrenching was the inferno – just a day earlier – that killed three Uni- versity of Mississippi ATO fraternity members.
“We can build buildings back,” he said. “We can’t replace life.”
Continually increasing fire safety for people in Oxford and at Ole Miss, Sallis said, means the department is constantly upgrading its equipment, training and other factors.
“Equipment and technology have changed so much,” he said. “Our trucks are giant computers. The technology on how we approach hazmat … has moved by leaps and bounds.”
City officials recently identified a 3.5-acre site on McElroy Drive next to the post office for a new station to combine crews from the aging No. 1 firehouse on North Lamar and No. 2 at Washington and Jackson avenues.
“The lot location really is ideal for us,” Sallis said, noting it would provide room for an eventual training facility.
Longer-term plans include another new station near the Conference Center or off East University Avenue.
“With the high school and other schools being in that area, we need to work toward adding coverage,” he said.
Being chief has given Sallis new insight into the adage, “The buck stops here.”
Flashing one of his frequent grins, the 45-year-old said, “Now I’ve got to have the answer, or know where to get it.”