By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
Lee County is home to Mississippi’s Fire Department of the Year, the Tupelo Fire Department, but also home to 17 other departments that work to provide fire protection to the county, most of them working for no pay.
Approximately 465 firefighters work to protect Lee County’s 18 fire districts, covering about 453 square miles of land – more than one firefighter for each square mile. Of those 465 firefighters, about 360 serve strictly as volunteers.
“The volunteer departments are a vital asset to the communities and play an important role in fire suppression in the county,” said Tupelo Fire Chief Thomas Walker. “If they need help they can call us, and if we need help we can call them. They are a vital function for Lee County.”
The departments are organized under Lee County Fire Director David Homan, who also serves in the Shannon Volunteer Fire Department. Each department is under a mutual aid agreement to ensure the entire county gets adequate fire coverage all day, every day.
Baldwyn Fire Chief Jerry Ozbirn said the agreement ensures enough firefighters respond to each fire.
“If they need us, we respond,” Ozbirn said. “During the day, people are at work. You don’t have the firemen in the day that you do at night, so we pool our resources to make it work.”
Homan has been working as a volunteer firefighter since he was in his teens.
“I grew up next to a fire station, so I was chasing fire trucks until I was old enough to ride in them,” Homan said. “They’re the unsung heroes of the county, and they save the people millions of dollars.”
Homan said the savings come not only when property is saved from burning but also in fire insurance and taxes.
Each rural department is able to levy a four-mill tax through the board of supervisors, and the departments inside city limits levy taxes through their respective city boards.
The tax money allows the departments to buy equipment like their radios, protective clothing and fire and rescue trucks.
Homan said new volunteers have been hard to come by in the past few years, but the departments try to make joining simple.
“You just have to let the department know you want to be a member, and there is a waiting period while they do a background check and then vote you in,” Homan said. “We try to make it easy to be a volunteer – you just have to be willing to run into a burning building to help someone you don’t know.”
As first responders, the departments respond not only to fires, but to most emergency calls.
Traffic accidents and medical emergencies make up the largest portion of emergency calls received by fire departments.
To become certified, volunteers go through 80 hours of classroom training and then spend a day working through the academy courses. To get the second certification level, a volunteer must spend 40 more hours in the classroom and become familiar with hazmat and EMR practices.
Homan said Lee County normally provides training.
“Each department has its own problems as far as having enough guys at fires or rescues, and we kind of depend on each other to back everyone up,” said Willie Payne, chief of the Belden Volunteer Fire Department. “I work at the hospital on and off during the week, so I keep my ears perked up to the surrounding area and will lend assistance when I’m off. That’s what each department does. There’s an old saying, ‘If you call for help, be looking for a place to park everyone because they’re coming.'”
The volunteer fire departments lower each district’s fire rating according to their manpower, equipment and response times. Each district starts with a rating of 10 and as the fire protection improves, so do the ratings.
No fire district in Lee County has a rating higher than 9, many of them going to 8 and 7. Tupelo has a 4.