“STEPPING UP TO SERVE”: IS A MISSISIPPI-BASED INITIATIVE TO SHOWCASE PEOPLE IN OUR COMMUNITY WHO ARE GOING THE EXTRA MILE TO GIVE BACK. THIS SEGMENT IS MADE POSSIBLE BY:
The effects of rising gas prices are being felt across the board by people who drive to work, as well as people who drive for work.
Across Mississippi, volunteers make up 85 percent of the state’s more than 16,000 firefighters. Their maintaining training, answering calls, and keeping updated and strong rosters not only save lives and property, but helps the insurance ratings of the communities they rely on in their worst hours.
Most of those volunteers, if not all, have no exterior funding for the gas they use running calls at all hours of the day and night. In addition, the rural departments have limited budgets when it comes to gas for their trucks as well.
“They’re tremendously committed to what they do, and I have no doubt they’re going to continue to fuel their personal vehicles to respond to these calls, because I know they’re that committed,” said Mississippi State Fire Academy Executive Director Terry Wages. “The problem is that transitions into their livelihood, into being able to go to work and buy groceries, and buy the commodities they need to live every day.”
But, Wages said, “The one thing I’m certain of is they will step up to the challenge.”
Asked at a recent press conference to offer some encouragement to volunteers who are working out of their own budgets to serve their communities even in the time of $4 gas, Gov. Tate Reeves turned to the political side.
“Well, this may not be exactly what you want to hear but my words of encouragement to those who are concerned about rising gas prices is that we are currently in March of 2022, and the midterm elections are in November,” he said.
So why don’t they just invest in electric cars, some would ask? Improbable, said Wages.
“At this point now, they can’t afford electric cars. I can’t afford them,” he said.
Firefighters’ Association President Chief John Pope of Collins elaborated.
“Generally, these are your common everyday Joe and Jane, it’s your neighbor down the street, it’s gonna be the person you work alongside at the minimum wage job, and even below that,” said Pope. “It’s common everyday good people that want to give back to their community and they want to serve their fellow man and provide their services.”
“Generally those people who are driving those higher priced electric vehicles and such are not the ones stepping up to say, ‘Hey, I want to be a volunteer firefighter,'” he continued. “It takes a different breed. We’re so blessed and thankful that we have people that want to serve and help, and they do everything they can to do it, even when it affects their own personal finances.”
But if the crunch continues too much for too long and volunteers have to choose their personal finances over their dedication to their communities, what happens? It could affect insurance rates. It could affect call times. Manpower issues during a time where recruitment is already low across most of the state could get worse. Rural home owners and business owners could be affected in multiple ways.
The argument could be made, however, that volunteer firefighters really are, as Pope said, a different breed.
“I work with Pelahatchie Fire and no, just because prices went up doesn’t mean I will stop responding to calls,” said Keenan Kelly. “I joined the fire department because I want to give back to the community, I enjoy being able to help those in need. I see being a volunteer fireman as a life long career.”
Kristen Elliott, another Rankin County volunteer, echoed Kelly’s sentiments.
“I’ve been on Evergreen since I started as a junior in 2005. Truthfully I haven’t thought twice about stopping because of gas prices,” she said. “There will always be emergencies. No matter whether gas is 50 cents a gallon or $10 a gallon. The thought of being in an emergent situation and having no one to respond is bone-chillingly scary. As long as I can afford gas I will continue to respond.”
“Gas prices will never affect my response, I’ll walk to the station if I have to when I’m called to help,” said David Case, a 16-year veteran in Lincoln County at Heuck’s Retreat VFD.
Sharon Marshall-Sumler is a volunteer with Kearney Park in Flora.
“The gas prices will not stop me from responding. I am committed and dedicated to helping my community in their time of need,” she said.
Pope said he hopes to see local jurisdictions working to help their firefighters.
“I don’t know what the immediate solution is, I know that it’s something that we’ve already begun talking about ideas, maybe there’s a way through local governments, boards of supervisors, cities and towns,” Pope said. “They may be able to find ways if it’s legal to allow a stipend, just making sure the right angle is followed.”
Wages, who sees hundreds of firefighters of all kinds each day, had a different kind of encouragement for those men and women. It’s not political to your heart, he said.
“The words I give are stand fast, continut to do what you do, continue to invest in your communities,” he said. “Protect those Mississippians that are expecting that protection from us across the state, because you have to remember this is all they have in a time of emergency. That’s it.”