Bring in the rookie: Heart, strength, faith keeps new BFD fireman going strong

Published 10:15 pm Saturday, September 26, 2015

Photo by Kaitlin Mullins Dexter Harris recently graduated from the fire academy. He has been with the Brookhaven Fire Department since November.

Photo by Kaitlin Mullins
Dexter Harris recently graduated from the fire academy. He has been with the Brookhaven Fire Department since November.

Dexter Harris is what seasoned firemen call “green.” An excited rookie firefighter, he graduated from the Mississippi Fire Academy Friday. Seven weeks of grueling training and tests that prove he has what it takes are behind him, and he’s ready for the field.

“It feels like a big accomplishment,” Harris said. “I’m anxious and excited at the same time. I’m anxious [because] when we do get a call, I’m in there. It’s a great accomplishment because it took seven long weeks, and the stuff we had to do. We took tests — two to three tests a day. We did physical assessments in the hot sun, always in turnouts and stuff. Learning it was a big accomplishment for me and I feel good about that.”

Harris, who turned 24 this month, has been with the Brookhaven Fire Department since November 2014. He’s been sitting on the sidelines, studying, training and getting ready for his opportunity to move up and become a fully participating part of the team.

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Harris said he has wanted to be a firefighter since he was a kid; since the first time he saw the excitement of a fire station after the siren goes off. After pursuing a trade and working other jobs wasn’t turning out like he wanted, he decided to pursue his childhood dream. Since then, Harris has been dedicated to becoming one of the people who others look to for help.

Harris said what he loves most about the job is being able to help somebody in their time of need.

“You see the big red truck all the time in town but once you see when the sirens are running, you know someone is having a bad day,” he said. “And I think it really helps when you’ve got somebody there to help you in your time of need as far as saving your life or property.

“I enjoy just helping someone, even though that means endangering my own life just trying to get it done.”

Harris said the Mississippi Fire Academy is no walk in the park. “Maze day” is a part of week one designed to weed out the ones who can’t handle facing intimidating circumstances. Trainees crawl and climb blindfolded through a simulated house fire with confined spaces barely big enough to squeeze through. They have so many attempts to follow the “pattern” correctly and if a certain number of attempts aren’t successful, they’re out. The academy is an intense and challenging time that Harris prepared for with the help of some of the more experienced BFD firemen. All of the hard work of the academy is necessary, Harris said, because a firefighter has to be tough in more ways than one.

“It’ll take [a] toll physically but it’ll take [a] toll mentally,” he said. “Because you can go to a car wreck [and] you’re bound to see anything. They might be alive where you can save them, they might be dead or positioned a certain way [to] where it’s just — if you had a weak stomach you couldn’t stand it. Mentally taking that home, having that in your head, knowing what you’ve seen but not letting that get to you. I think mentally it’ll get to you; you have to be mentally strong.”

How does Harris deal with that?

“Praying,” he said. “Making sure I stay in touch with God. Having faith and knowing that I knew what I got myself into going into this job and just praying that when I go through that, I can get through it [by] praying.”

Harris said he’s the type of person to overtrain, preferring to be ready for the situation that could test his limits so that he is successful. Fellow firemen around the station gave him tips, helped him study and told him because he had his head on straight and was physically fit that he had nothing to worry about. All the preparation benefitted Harris, he said, especially because he lacked volunteer firefighting experience like many candidates in the academy do.

For now, he is content with being the one responsible for the dishes, the sweeping and washing the truck, but said if another rookie were to replace him he has a few words of advice.

“If another person would come on soon, I think my advice would be to never give up. I mean it might seem hard at first — you can’t look at a fireman just sitting on the couch, chilling watching TV — you have to work and earn to be certified. It’s been a long, long way as far as me training for CPAT [candidate physical ability test], and it’s my choice. I love to train, I love to work out and making sure I’m physically ready, and I’d try to give that advice to them: to try to never get complacent or too lazy. Especially right before the academy because they’ll expose you and try to make you second guess [if] you really want to be in this career.