New Albany Fire Chief Steve Coker is retiring after 28 years of service, but it’s hardly because of waning interest. Friends and co-workers say he lives and breathes fire protection.
It’s health issues that are necessitating his change.
He also resigned as county fire coordinator earlier this year.
Coker first got into firefighting in 1992. “I was a volunteer at East Union,” he said. “I had been a little involved before and after I graduated from Mississippi State I got to do a little more activity.”
Firefighting was somewhat different then than now, especially for the county volunteer departments. “We had two junk trucks,” he said. “There was a ’56 or ’57 from New Albany and we built a tanker truck in ’94 when the ice storm hit.”
Later they got a surplus pumper from the forestry department to replace the ’56 truck, he said. “We had to work on all that stuff,” he continued, they were concerned they might make it to a fire, but maybe no make it back. “We had a little money, but not a lot.”
Equipment was provided, but just barely, for the 18 or so volunteers. “We got older (turnout) coats and bits and pieces of stuff and had fundraisers,” he said. “The community has always been real good about sponsoring.”
Because of Coker’s interest, he became certified. “They got me doing a training officer deal,” he said, “and moved me up to chief.”
In fact, Coker served as chief for East Union 15 years.
In 2008, Union County supervisors chose him to become county fire coordinator following Charlie Harris.
The county fire coordinator obviously coordinates with the city and ten county departments. That includes training, regulation changes, funding, working with city and county officials, equipment and testing.
Then, in 2011, he was chosen to be chief of the New Albany department.
The city and county have seen a lot of fire protection improvements during Coker’s tenure.
County residents have felt at least one financially. At the time Coker started, most of the county fire districts were rated 10 in terms of protection. That’s the least desirable rating.
Now, most are rated 7 or 8, which translates into lower fire insurances costs for the public as well as increased fire protection. Almost the entire county is in a fire protection district and several districts have been able to expand.
The exception includes the few rural areas that are more than five miles from a station.
Coker has also supported the Emergency Medical Responder program since he became coordinator.
Because of county geography and possibly other emergencies, it may take an ambulance 20 or 30 minutes to reach some areas. EMRs from local volunteer fire departments can be there in a few minutes.
While EMRs are not Paramedics, they are trained in basic lifesaving techniques such as CPR, protecting airways and controlling breathing. Most EMRs carry some basic equipment and many have their own oxygen supply and even an Automated External Defibrillator for use with heart attacks.
“There have been four or five cases where these AEDs made the difference in whether the person lived or died,” Coker said. “One was in the city.”
He said the Ingomar department really started the program and it “just evolved.”
While he is proud of the good it does, he would not mind seeing it get a little more funding and increased personnel.
As New Albany chief, Coker has seen that department take on more lifesaving responsibilities in addition to firefighting.
Now, a rescue crew goes out to most accident scenes in the city and often backs up county departments when needed. That has grown over the past 50 years, actually.
“They had some old Hurst (rescue) tools back in the ‘70s and had an old Ford van,” he said.
After upgrading slightly over the years, the department finally designed their own designated rescue pumper, Rescue One, at a cost of $356,000. The old hydraulic rescue tools were upgraded to new battery-operated ones, he said.
“All firefighters are trained in lifesaving and all but a couple of older one are certified EMRs,” Coker said.
When asked what he would like to see changed about the New Albany department, Coker said that it is in pretty good shape. We don’t really need another fire station, for instance.
“Logistically, the stations are where they need to be,” he said. The exception to that, of course, is the Burlington-Northern Railroad which can potentially cut off part of the northern section of the city from direct emergency services.
“If the city were to ever discuss another station they would need to consider something like annexation issues,” he said. “I’d like to see a little more personnel on each shift but most of the apparatus is in good shape.”
In the city, we built the training building (behind Station 2 on Denton Road) with both city and county. “We can burn in it and use it for a lot of training,” he said. “A lot of times a working shift will just go out there and train. It’s been a city-county joint thing that has worked pretty well.”
Some federal money helped Coker purchase thermal imaging cameras in 2012, and they are used to determine hot spots and fire sources on nearly every call.
Then, in 2016, the department was able to get $112,000 to purchase new self-contained breathing apparatuses to replace the old outdated ones they were using. The department had enough money left over to add 1,500 feet of five-inch hose.
“Most fire systems here are OK and the fire flow is fine,” he said. While some city water lines are more than a century old, the department’s annual inspection and flushing program keeps hydrants working and the water mostly clear.
He hopes the education program will continue, and says firefighters will continue to install free smoke detectors for the public as long as they are available.
Now, firefighters work 24-hour shifts, with three shifts and six personnel at each of the two stations. The staff includes Coker and Deputy Chief Mark Whiteside along with the 18 full-time firefighters, six part-time and six volunteers.
“They take pride in their work,” Coker said. “I have been in other departments in other areas and, man!” he said, indicating he would stack up his department against any other.
“With the board here, if we needed it we would be able to get it,” he said.
Coker wanted to remind people about a misconception some have: people sometimes assume the job of firefighters is to extinguish a blaze at all cost.
That’s not true. Sometimes the best course of action is to let something burn, rather than possibly cost lives. “You have to look at the risk benefit,” he said.
He also wants residents to not become too complacent about fire protection. Every day, extremely hazardous materials come through New Albany on I-22 and the railroad and a time could come when the department has to evacuate the city.
Something like that happened a few years ago when a truck carrying hydrogen peroxide overturned. People thought, what’s the big deal, Coker said, not realizing that concentration was perhaps a thousand times more dangerous that what one purchases at a drug store.
Coker’s department is trained and ready for that and other emergencies.
“I hoped I would do this for a few more years,” Coker said, but that is becoming less realistic concerning his treatment schedule.
Don’t expect Coker to give up his love of firefighting, however. Indeed, he still comes to the department when a lesser person might just decide to stay home.
“We appreciate his dedicated service. He’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with,” Mayor Tim Kent said.
“It’s been a pleasure working with him,” building inspector Eric Thomas, who has also been an Ingomar fire volunteer 24 years, said. “He’s been a great leader and done a lot with life safety. He loves his job and takes a lot of pride in what he does. He works well with people, not just saying no. He worked really good with the county departments.”fire chief, New Albany, retirement, Steve Coker, Union County