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Carl Rossini

Mayflower fire chief brings experience to job

By Tammy Keith

This article was published December 8, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

Mayflower Fire Chief Carl Rossini has a diverse background, including working as a police officer, a sheriff’s deputy and head of a bioterrorism committee at a hospital. All that experience came into play during the ExxonMobil pipeline oil spill in the community in March.

Mayflower Fire Chief Carl Rossini has learned at least one thing in his 59 years — never say never.

He is a self-avowed country boy, but not a naive one.

Rossini grew up as one of six children on a farm in Lake Village, but his search to find a career took him to Connecticut, Indiana and Mississippi before he landed in Mayflower.

“My grandparents had a farm [in Lake Village]. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a plantation atmosphere with the shotgun houses; it was an Italian community. We became farmhands because that’s how you raised a big family back then. We hand-picked cotton.”

His first job after high school was in Connecticut, where his older brother was living while serving in the Navy.

For a couple of years, Rossini worked at a shop recapping 18-wheeler tires, and it was there he saw his biggest fire.

A co-worker was caught stealing tires to resell, “so he decided he was going to burn the place down,” Rossini said.

“I was there that night,” he said of the cold evening. “I lived probably a block and a half away.”

He said someone took a photo of him breaking the ice on a drainage system so water could flow and help douse the fire.

He said it was after that major fire that he became interested in becoming a firefighter, and he was also a volunteer auxiliary police officer in Connecticut.

“We were the guys when there was a big fight — I’m talking 15, 20, at times 30 to 100 people — they’d send us in to break it up,” he said. The full-time officers would make the arrests, he said.

Rossini decided to come back to Arkansas.

“I moved back home because I figured out that was not the kind of lifestyle I wanted to live up there,” he said. “It was too fast. I’m a little old country boy, and being up there in the big city, I missed home.”

He didn’t stay put long because he got a job in Kokomo, Ind., working for a large fence company, he said.

“There were two major blizzards. That whole town was shut down; the trains couldn’t even run,” he said.

Rossini, who is now divorced, said he and his wife decided they wanted to go where there “weren’t 30 feet of snow drifts.”

He did some seasonal work back in Arkansas, including working as a state land surveyor, building houses and installing irrigation systems on farms. Then he commuted to Greenville, Miss., where he worked for a rice plant and became a supervisor.

“I loved it; I loved it,” he said.

It was good pay and plenty of work, but then he had an accident while doing repairs 14 feet above the floor.

He was on top of a screw conveyor when he slipped on spilled rice and fell between two augers, landing between two metal dumpsters, he said.

Rossini said he broke his kneecap in four places, broke his wrist and two fingers, and had three hairline fractures on his left ankle.

“That pretty well ended my factory work,” he said.

He became a security guard at Lake Chicot Memorial Hospital in Lake Village and was a volunteer firefighter with the nearby Lakeport Volunteer Fire Department.

“Some friends of mine belonged to it, and they talked me into it,” he said.

In just three or four months, he was asked to become fire chief because his job at the county-owned hospital was part time.

Rossini had to be an auxiliary officer with the Chicot County Sheriff’s Office to be a security officer.

He decided to dedicate himself more to the job and became a Chicot County deputy. He also volunteered for the Office of Emergency Management, and he was working at the hospital when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred.

Rossini said that because of anthrax scares, hospital procedures were strengthened, and he was made head of the bioterrorism team.

He was getting training left and right on what to do in case of a terrorist attack.

“I was like a sponge, soaking it up,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was an expert, but I became knowledgeable.”

It was then, Rossini said, that he heard people say, “Oh, well, nothing like that could ever happen here.”

Rossini said he countered with one man that a catastrophe wouldn’t have to happen in Lake Village for it to affect people.

“Sure enough, look what happened with Katrina. People moved north …; 6,000, 7,000 dropped in on Lake Village like that,” Rossini said, snapping his fingers.

“Don’t ever say never,” Rossini said.

Move to Mayflower, become fire chief and work on a major oil spill?

It happened.

Rossini’s mother was hospitalized in Conway in 2004, and he would stop in Mayflower on his drive back and forth from Lake Village.

He said he asked then-Mayflower Police Chief Steve Young, “Do y’all need any help here?”

Rossini said he had his resume and certifications with him.

“He said, ‘I can hire you right now,’” Rossini said.

He started as a part-time auxiliary police officer and part-time dispatcher and found Mayflower to be much calmer than southeast Arkansas.

The proposition of being the fire chief came up, but Rossini wasn’t sure he was in Mayflower to stay.

“I was getting to know the people down here and loving what I did,” he said, and he bought a home in 2005.

When Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland was elected in 2006, he appointed Rossini as fire chief and code-enforcement officer.

Rossini kept his certification as a police officer, “just in case.” He helps out if the Mayflower Police Department is short-handed, but the Fire Department takes most of his time, he said.

He oversees 15 part-time firefighters who average 500 to 600 calls a year, mostly medical runs.

He said two fires stand out in his mind — both involved fatalities.

In one, a mother died, and her children got out. In the other one, a grandmother and granddaughter died.

“It was pretty bad,” he said. “It touches home when it comes to children. For the younger guys who have young kids that age, it hits real hard. You question yourself, ‘Boy, if I could have got there sooner,’” he said.

Those doubts are unfounded, though, Rossini said.

“By the time the neighborhood noticed it, it was way too late,” he said.

He was in Hot Springs for an international code conference on March 29 when the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline broke in a Mayflower subdivision.

Rossini had gotten out of class and was on Lake Hamilton at the home of one of his brothers, planning a family get-together, when he started getting calls.

The first one was from a fellow firefighter.

“I said, ‘Well, OK, go get some oil dry and clean it up.’ He said, ‘Naw, you don’t understand — a pipeline broke.’”

Then the mayor called, and Sheila McGhee, director of the Faulkner County Office of Emergency Management. “She said, ‘You need to get down here.’”

He made phone calls on the way, instructing the firefighters on what to do.

“Our main concern was to shut it down on 89 South,” he said, to keep it out of Lake Conway.

Rossini said all his training fit into what the city faced, and even nine or 10 days before the oil spill, Mayflower firefighters underwent “a refresher course” on oil spills.

However, he was shocked when he saw the oil running in the yards and streets.

“You have no perspective how much oil you’re going to be dealing with.”

It was estimated to be 210,000 gallons of heavy crude oil.

“I’m also floodplain manager here,” he said. “You know the land, the drainage systems. You focus on where you know this oil is going to go.”

The pipeline also goes across the northwest corner of his property, he said.

“I think we did an excellent job — everybody did,” he said.

He said the cove has been cleaned out, and “now it’s beautiful.”

“At no point in time did [the oil] ever reach the main body of Lake Conway,” he said.

Rossini said he has eaten fish that he’s caught in Lake Conway since the oil spill.

“Everyone was affected, not just because of the smell of it, but we went from 2,300 people to 7,000 within hours,” he said.

“Mayflower became very, very famous.”

Rossini fielded calls from people as far away as New York and Canada, either touting their products to clean the oil or weighing in with their opinion of the situation.

He said he told people, “‘Look, unless you are here and know what we’re dealing with, it’s all speculation.’”

Rossini said good news for residents of Mayflower came in November when the city received a Class 5 Insurance Service Office rating, which is rated from 10 to 1, with 1 being the best. It had been a Class 9 in the rural areas and 7 in the city. The new rating will go into effect Feb. 1.

“Fortunately for people, it used to be a five-mile radius from the central station or substation. Now it’s five driving miles — how long does it take to get from point A to point B?”

The fire chief said that for some people in the city, the new rating will reduce insurance rates by $200 to $400 a year, and he said it should be a “big chunk” for commercial businesses.

One of the ways the ISO rating was lowered was that the city built a substation west of the railroad tracks that divide the town.

It’s the railroad that he worries about.

“The biggest fear I have is a train derailment, a chemical spill,” he said.

Rossini said the department has trained on what to do, and it is part of its ongoing education.

One derailment of train cars carrying certain chemicals, and the entire community might have to be evacuated, Rossini said.

“We just hope that never happens, but who thought we’d have an oil spill?” he said.

Rossini said the close-knit Mayflower community has an appreciation for firefighters.

“After all my years doing this, I don’t feel like I’m doing this in vain,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know you’re serving your community and helping save lives.

“I’m here until I retire, I hope.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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