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The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Volunteer firefighters balance their lives between calls and classes

Courtesy | Kylie LaBelle
New volunteer firefighters must attend 120 hours of certification classes in order to serve Oktibehha County.

A familiar page tone wakes them up in their homes in the middle of the night. The loud, high-pitched beep is followed by a long, low tone and 10 siren-like chirps through their radios. They listen to their instructions after the alarm, and in seconds, they rush over to do their jobs.

The members of the East Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department have an average of 500 calls a year, and they are one of seven departments in the county taking on fires, saving people from car accidents and assisting with medical emergencies. These members do these acts without pay, and 42% of those members are students at Mississippi State University.

MSU freshman business major Sydney Maheu joined the department through an interaction she had with members at Shades of Starkville in August 2023. She joined to get some experience with working with fire, but she gained much more than that.

“I’d just say the fire department is more like a family,” Maheu said. “I feel like everyone here makes sure I’m well taken care of.”

As a family, they must learn to work together without hesitation.

January 14, 2024, was one of those days when that teamwork came to light. MSU students Kylie Labelle, Samuel Boin and Jack Edwards performed their duty by arriving to a call as quickly as possible. The group found a bleeding patient in full cardiac arrest when they arrived at the scene, so they immediately began CPR. The three of them rotated compressions until the ambulance arrived, and Labelle and Boin continued CPR in the ambulance while they zipped to the hospital. The Oktibbeha County Fire Service officially honored the three in March for saving that person’s life.

“The recognition was not at all needed,” Labelle said. “The only thing that I needed to know is that I did the absolute best that I could to give that person a better shot at being okay. It’s about providing the highest quality care that we possibly can, and as long as I do that on every single call, which I do my best to do, I can go home at night happy and fulfilled.”

Labelle is a senior wildlife, fisheries and aquatics major at MSU. She found the fire department when she volunteered to wash firetrucks on Service Dawgs Day in 2022, and she has upped her involvement in fire safety awareness since joining. She is the president of the club Fire Dawgs, which provides fire education and ways to get involved with prescribed burning.

Outside of fires, the majority of the calls they run are medical-related. During these calls, the firefighters work as first responders, arriving at a scene that may be difficult to process. They see graphic sights in real-time, and sometimes, they arrive at a scene after a patient has passed.

Jack Edwards, a junior business major, has been with the East Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department since his freshman year, and he volunteered back at his home in Tennessee. Though young, he has been a firefighter for a while, and with that comes witnessing several dangerous and saddening events. He does all of this while being a student and president of MSU’s Kappa Alpha Fraternity.

“In my mind, there’s two separate sides of my brain. There’s the fire department, and there’s regular life,” Edwards said. “It may sound bad, but I do keep them separate because there’s rough, really rough, calls we’ve been on here.”

Samuel Boins, a junior electrical engineering major, is a resident adviser in McKee Hall. Boin sometimes wakes up the residents with those difficult early morning calls.

“It’s a very weird thing that I don’t think the guys in my dorm know I’m a firefighter,” Boin said. “I don’t think they always get it. There’s been times we’ve gone to DOA’s (dead on arrival) in the morning at like, seven o’clock in the morning when people are waking up. And then I’m in class at eight. Yeah, go see a dead person at seven, then go to class at eight.”

Chief Greg Ball has been with the East Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department since 1992 and has been chief since 2001. He stresses to his 11 students the importance of balancing their lives with classes and calls.

“School comes first,” Ball said. “Because I don’t want mom and dad calling me and saying Junior is spending too much time in fire station.”

Ball talks to his students about keeping up their GPA and working towards success in their classes. He encourages his student firefighters to have a conversation with their professors about what they do to avoid any conflicts as well.

After all the difficult calls and making it to classes, the students, along with the rest of the department, come back to the station to be there for each other. The students work on homework and chat in the large meeting room, ready to go if a call comes in. There is no blank space on the walls of that room; it is filled with their coverage area maps, operating procedures, newspaper clippings, framed images providing encouragement and some firefighting memorabilia. Tables and worn couches fill the room, making it a cozy enough setting to hang out.

When they are not hanging out, they are training. Every member has to go through 120 hours of certification classes to be able to go on calls and wear the gear, and when they turn 21, they have to learn how to drive the firetrucks. After going through those classes, they must attend three trainings a month, two within the department and one county-wide training, where all of the seven volunteer departments and Starkville city departments strive to be the best firefighters they can be.

Most of the students, like Edwards and Boin, chose to train hard and volunteer because they care about the job and love it.

“I just say it’s given us a deeper understanding for life, the frailty of life,”  Edwards said. “You kind of get to see it more. We get a little better perspective on life than everybody else on campus.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Boin said.

About the Contributor
Megan Gordon
Megan Gordon, Former Life & Entertainment Editor
Megan Gordon served as the Life & Entertainment Editor from 2023 to 2024.
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    Melissa LaBelleMay 2, 2024 at 6:57 pm

    I’d like to thank you for writing this article. My daughter is Kylie LaBelle. There have been a few articles written, which I’m thankful for, but this one really explains everything! Great job! These are amazing young people who are all giving their time to try to do good and be helpful. Thank you for truly showcasing what it takes!