A glimpse into a firefighter’s 35-year journey

Published 9:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2023

WEST POINT — At Thursday’s noon hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club, Kelly Meacham gave a very entraining talk of a 35-year career he had as a firefighter in the City of Lanett.

“If I had it to do over again, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be in any other department, in any other city.”

Meacham said he could remember wanting to be an astronaut when he was very young. “My mom told me if I wanted to be an astronaut I had to be able to tell time when I looked at a clock,” he said. “I could not do it at that age, so I thought about other careers.”

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One day while waiting for a dental appointment in Dr. Shirley’s office in downtown Lanett he heard a fire truck go out on a call. At the time, the Lanett Fire Department was located across the street from Dr. Shirley’s office. Young Kelly looked out a window and saw big No. 28 pulling out of the bay with a fireman hanging off the back and dressed in firefighter gear.

“It was so exciting,” he said. “I knew right then and there I wanted to be a fireman.”

The one drawback, then and in more recent times, was that the Lanett fire station didn’t have a pole to slide down from upstairs to ground-floor level where the fire truck was parked.

Meacham liked to watch the TV show Emergency while growing up. It reinforced that initial urge to want to be a fireman. He would build model fire trucks and read anything he could find about firefighting. He would go to the fire station and get to know the firemen. He asked if he could help out in some way. “I kept going back and got to do some training,” he said. “I thought it was so cool the first time I got to spend the night at the fire station.”

Mack Sanders was the chief at the time. Meacham said he was a great leader of men and always seemed to have the right answers. “He’s someone I will always admire,” he said. “Irt was an honor to speak at his funeral.”

Chief Sanders made Meacham a junior fireman., and on June 28, 1979, Meacham’s dream came true. He’d just turned 18, was a high school graduate and the newest Lanett fireman. “I did daily duty, worked long hours and got used to wearing fireman’s gear with the long coats and heavy boots. I remember having to buy my own gloves. I learned to use the self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA. Firemen have to have it when they are inside a burning structure.”

Meacham went to rookie school where he received EMS training.

To become a firefighter today, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen, be 18 years of age or older, have a valid driver’s license, State of Alabama EMS certification at the EMT-Basic level and have successfully completely the Candidate Physical Agility Test (CPAT). To become a firefighter in Alabama it takes an estimated 360 hours of training to earn state certification and once one is hired on as a firefighter it’s just the start of continued training throughout one’s career.

Meacham said all firefighters are kidded about spending most of their time hanging around the station and washing the fire trucks. “I used to tell people that’s what I got paid to do,” he said, “but when I went to a fire it was something I wanted to do. I have always wanted to help people. Most times in emergency situations, you are putting a total stranger ahead of your own safety. At the start of every day you don’t know what you will be getting into that day, where you will go or what you will do.”

Meacham said the heroism shown by firefighters on September 11, 2001 is something people should never forget.

The North Tower of the World Trade Center was the first of the two towers to be hit by a hijacked jetliner that day. Since it was hit high up on the building. the fire was spreading downward and teams of firefighters were climbing many flights of stairs to get to the fire. The South Tower was hit much lower, causing a faster moving fire. It was the first to collapse sending lethal debris into the first tower hit, killing a number of people trying to leave, or in the firefighter’s case, trying to go up in the burring building.

A total of 343 New York City firefighters died that day. Altogether, close to 3,000 people died on 9-11.

“When they saw the South Tower collapse, hurling debris into the building they were in they kept going,” Meacham said.

“Being a firefighter is to risk your life for strangers,” he added. “You are serving your community by putting the lives of other people ahead of your own. When you are inside a burning building you are covered with heavy protective gear. You know it’s 800 degrees just outside that suit. You can’t think about that when you are in that situation. You have a job to do.”

Meacham said he will never forget the time a rookie firefighter showed up at a structure fire without any of his gear. “What do you think you can do here without that?” Meacham asked.

Meacham has had his share of getting cats down out of trees. One time a woman called for such assistance. The firemen got to the house, found the cat, put up a ladder and quickly got him down. A woman then came out of the house and told them to put the cat back up in the tree.

“I’ve got Dusty Nix from The Valley Times-News coming here to take a picture of this,” she told them.

The firefighter crew obliged her and the photo was taken.

“It ran in the paper, and I still have a clipping of it,” Meacham said.

Meacham was with the Lanett Fire Department when it started an EMS service. “I went to work one day and there was an ambulance parked in front of the fire station,” he said. At the time, the local community was being served by private ambulance services. “Those working for the private service went on strike for more pay,” Meacham said. “They turned to the fire departments to resolve that situation.”

Almost all paid fire departments in Alabama now provide EMS service.

The Alabama Fire College has provided firefighter training since 1936. As service demands on fire departments have expanded over the years, the Alabama Fire College has developed EMS, hazardous materials, rescue technician and other programs to meet these changing needs.

A firefighter never knows what he will be called on to do from one day to the next. One day when Meacham was at the station, a car drove up in front of the bays and a driver got out signaling for help. When Meacham got there he found that a pregnant woman in the car was in labor. He had to deliver the baby on the front seat of the car.

One day during some fire hydrant flow testing, a side outlet blew off, striking his knee with great force. “I had just had some surgery on that knee and had to go right back to the hospital for more surgery,” Meacham said.

Meacham’s mom once asked him if there was anyone else in the department who could ride on the back of a racing fire truck and then go into a burning building. He appreciated her concern, but had to explain to her that there were no favorites and everybody had to share in the work load.

Meacham had planned to retire on his anniversary date, June 28th, in 2012, but called it a career two weeks before then. “We got called out to a structure fire on the north side of Lanett,” he said. “I was on the second floor inside a burning structure when the floor gave way. I fell down to ground level and my second-in-command, Austin Bayles, pulled me out. He told me I was done, that this was the my last day on the job. Since I was only 13 days away from the planned date, I didn’t argue with him.”

Meacham is no longer into fighting fires but is still committed to helping people. He is an active member of the Saint John’s Episcopal Church in West Point and takes part in many outreach efforts. His favorite thing is to have yard displays during the Halloween season. He, wife Contessa and other family members go all out to have a fun and creative display every year at their home off Veterans Memorial Parkway in the Huguley community. One year he converted an old satellite TV dish into a crashed UFO. They even had an injured “alien” being taken from the crash site by two other aliens with a stretcher. They outdid themselves a couple of years ago with a pirate ship manned by a “skeleton” crew.

Meacham said that being a firefighter can be both the best of times and the worst of times. “You spend one-third of your life with the people you work with,” he said, “but if I had it all to do over again I’d do it in a heartbeat.”