Profile 2019: Indianola's new fire chief, assistant chief keeping department safe

By BY RECARDO THOMAS STAFF REPORTER,

Firefighter safety is at the top of the list of main concerns for Indianola’s fire chief and assistant chief.

After nearly a year in office, Chief Orlando Battle and Assistant Chief William “Bill” Alford said making sure that the firefighters are safe and healthy for the future is their number one priority.

In a joint interview, the dousing duo said new safety innovations are available to help keep the guys safer on the job and provide greater opportunities for the future.

Their job now is to convince those who control the money, as well as the firefighters that these improvements are needed.

Battle said some of the guys still consider soot on their skin and clothing to be a type of “badge of honor,” however new information shows that type of thinking to be a detriment to the firefighter’s health.

Alford agreed and added, “We’re getting it first hand by running into these structures, not only that, but putting it in the firetrucks and taking it home.” He said that with the materials and chemicals used in household items nowadays, not only do they burn hotter and faster, but they let off hazardous emissions that attach to the firefighter’s skin, clothing and even enter the body’s open pores.

According to them, research shows that coming in contact with this burn-off and inhaling the smoke residue can cause cancer.

Having been a firefighter since he was a teenager, Battle said he was then proud to be called a smoke-eater, someone who goes into a fire without an airpack, but now he is concerned about what that could have done to his health.

“I was brought up in that era,” he said.

Battle said the average lifespan for a firefighter is only 54 years, so the two assert that the days of dirty helmets and sooty turnouts are over.

“The fire service changes every day, there’s something being invented right now, somebody’s trying to figure out what can I do to make this job safe, more efficient, more easy for the guys,” Battle surmised.

In 2019 and beyond, they are advocating decontamination.

They want the firemen to clean off before getting back into the trucks, in essence take a bath in their turnouts and use baby wipes to wipe down their equipment.

“This is new to us, but we want the new guys to have the safety advantage to be able to say 25 years from now they have always had this. We want to try and protect the guys that are coming under our tenure, so they don’t have to deal with this and they do everything that’s right,” Alford said.

He said in the past when it came to fires, especially when they were on overnight duty, the thinking was, put it out real quick, go back to the station take a shower and go to bed. “But that could be literally what ends up killing me and Squirrel,” Alford said.

Battle and Alford expressed in agreement, “We want them to have a long life.” They concur that it will take changing the mind-frame of the guys and surrendering to the notion, “We’re fighting a battle, it’s not going to be easy.”

With more than 40 combined years of experience between them, the two have moved up through the ranks to the top two positions in the department. Battle joined the department straight out of high school in 1994 and credits former Chief Eugene Snipes for encouraging him to reach out to then Chief John Childs.

Battle said he encountered Snipes while at the basketball court and without any prompting, Snipes asked him if he had ever thought about being a fireman and suggested that he contact Childs because there was an opening.

However, Battle’s interest in firefighting had sparked long before he met Snipes on the basketball court that day.

Even as a high school student in Doris Brock’s English class, Battle said all his essays were about firefighters and firefighting.

“I always wanted to know where the firetruck was going and I wondered, ‘man, what are those guys doing?’ It was just something I liked about being a fireman, I’ve always wanted to be a fireman. So, I guess my dream came true,” said Battle.

Alford, a Murrah High School graduate, was working as a disc jockey for a skating rink and as an announcer for a radio station in Jackson, which should come as no surprise since he does a lot of that type work for the Indianola Academy games and more.

“I worked overnights on an adult-contemporary station,” he said.

At the insistence of his sister and brother-in-law he moved to Indianola, enrolled in Mississippi Delta Community College and started selling advertisements for a Christian radio station, which is how he met his wife, Mary.

“She was on my client list, we started dating and the rest is history,” said Alford.

His sister and her husband moved to Arkansas about a year and a half after Alford moved here, but he stayed.

Alford, who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, joined the Indianola Volunteer Fire Department and worked with them until a compensated position came open with the Indianola department in March 1996.

The two working chiefs attribute their present-day work ethic and philosophy to Childs.

“He’d be stern, get the point across, get you back on track, he was a big influence for me and the chief,” said Alford.

In addition to firefighter safety, facility and equipment improvement are also high on the list.

The duo surmise that despite the improvements they’ve witnessed over the years, the Indianola department is still at least 20 years behind when it comes to major repairs and living conditions for the on-duty crew at both stations.

They only recently received approval to repair a roof where it was raining on the firefighters while they were trying to sleep.

“We’re trying to get you as safe as possible then comfortable as possible while you are at work,” said Battle.

Without pointing fingers at any previous administrations, the two surmised that certain things were allowed to go unaddressed, but they have vowed to ask for and fight for whatever they need to keep the department viable.

Especially since they have 13 to 15 firemen who depend on them to get what they need, to do their jobs in a satisfactory manner, said Alford.

Another goal on their list is to reduce the fire ratings. Currently the city is at a 6 out of 10. By comparison, the Cleveland fire department, which is 100 percent volunteer, has a rating of four and the Gulfport fire department is the only one in the state with a rating of two, putting it in the one percentile of the nation, according to Battle and Alford.

A lower rating means lower insurance rates for homeowners.

This can be done by insuring that all of the firefighters in the department are trained and certified and the water rating is sufficient.

As for the future, the department is getting a new $585,000 fire engine that will come equipped with $56,000 worth of thermal imaging devices that will be used to identify hotspots in structure fires.

In addition, the new equipment will include a striking tool that will pierce car hoods and allow them to douse car fires without having to struggle to open the engine cover.

They also have plans to increase their in-school educational activities to remind children to be safe at home.

Battle said they are not just sitting idly by but are aggressively seeking ways to enhance the department.

They have scheduled a meeting with Sen. Willie Simmons to talk about federal money that may be available to accomplish some of their long-term goals.

“A closed mouth don’t get fed, we’re opening ours,” Battle said

Since acquiring the positions, they have witnessed a much-needed boost in morale. They said firefighters are starting to hang out at the station again, which is a good sign since they consider the department to be a close-knit family that must stick together and look out for each other.

According to Battle, the men are now expressing their appreciation for the efforts being exerted on their behalf and the once-strained relationship between the department and the volunteers is on the mend.

Battle said more volunteers are responding to the fire calls and there’s a waiting list, something he said they’ve never had before.

Overall, these caring and compassionate chiefs are out to improve the image of the fire department. “We want to leave a legacy,” they said.

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