Mississippi Fire Chiefs Conference comes to Starkville as first responders adapt to how COVID-19 is changing fire service

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STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) – Close to 100 different leaders from fire departments across the state of Mississippi came to Starkville Monday for the annual Mississippi Fire Chiefs Conference.

The three-day event featured vendors displaying the latest in equipment for first responders and guest speakers that included Mississippi State Women’s Basketball Coach Nikki McCray and Atlanta Fire Chief Randal Slaughter. It gives area fire chiefs the opportunity to collaborate with their peers on issues facing their departments.

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Especially how to keep doing their jobs safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the way that EMS workers and first responders respond, the game has definitely changed,” said Greenville Fire Chief and President of the Mississippi Fire Chiefs Association Ruben Brown.

Finding ways to adapt and succeed amid those changes is what brings fire chiefs together for the conference year after year.

“Bring other chiefs in from across the state and you get a chance to network with them and see what they’re doing maybe in South Mississippi,” said Starkville Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough. “May be a little different from what they’re doing in the central or north side of Mississippi.”

The theme of the 2021 conference was “Leaders Rise by Uplifting Others.” Making sure fire chiefs are equipped to maintain proper health and safety protocols at their various stations fell under that subject as well.

“There were topics that were discussed concerning COVID-19 to help fire chiefs and fire departments throughout the state of Mississippi be safe and really how to handle situations as it relates to COVID-19,” he said.

Dr. Damon Darsey from University of Mississippi Medical Center was one of many guest speakers at the event and gave a presentation on Tuesday called “COVID-19 and the New Fire Service.”

“It’s been a challenge,” Yarbrough said. “We’ve had people who’ve been infected with COVID. Because they’ve been infected, other people around them have to take off to be quarantined so we’ve been running short staffed.”

Staffing shortages have been an issue for multiple Mississippi fire departments. In addition to routinely sanitizing equipment and social distancing, fire departments will be adding daily taste and smell tests to their protocols.

“One of the big things with COVID is not having taste or smell so we’re going to start incorporating that with our temperature checks,” Yarbrough said.

Dr. Darsey also spoke to the importance of having all first responders take the coronavirus vaccine after it becomes available.

“The safety issue of it, he really pushed that,” Yarbrough said. “I think it changed people’s minds who were kind of apprehensive about taking it at first.”

Yarbrough and Brown both agree that wide-spread vaccination is one of the most vital steps they can take to make sure first responders can continue serving their communities as the pandemic drags on.

“We are hoping that the vaccine will make an impact and that firefighters and first responders throughout the state will take the vaccine so we can be productive in what we do in saving lives and property.”

Brown said the first round of vaccine administration for first responders was scheduled to begin the week of January 18.