As he readies to retire this Friday with 34½ years in the fire game, Lawton Fire Marshal Mark Mitchell said, “It’s been a pretty wild ride.”
Mitchell said it was his grandmother’s second husband who sparked his interest in joining the fire department — he was a retired Lawton firefighter. But there also was that interest in law enforcement that would later come into play with the career that followed.
After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in technology in criminal justice, he spent his first two years post-graduate as an investigator for the District Attorney’s office. But then he joined the fire department and was hired Jan. 20, 1986.
Mitchell has an eye and memory for details. That’s served him well over his ride. After six years to the day with the department, he took on a role as an assistant fire marshal. Six years and six months later, he took the role he’s served for 22 years.
“I had an interest right off the bat with the fire marshal’s office,” he said. “They think they know what goes on over here until they get here.”
There are three main facets to the fire marshal’s office, Mitchell said: code enforcement, fire investigations and educating the public.
With code enforcement, you conduct building inspections. Mitchell said he and another deputy work with builders on planning reviews during construction and remodeling.
There were two big changes to law in the past couple of years that Mitchell said have added new wrinkles to his office’s duties: the alcohol laws changing to allow for higher point beer and medical marijuana legalization. The fire marshal’s office now conducts inspections in stores for the ABLE commission.
“With north of 50 dispensaries” and grow operations in Lawton, the medical marijuana movement has put him on the front line to review permits and sign off on licenses. When asked if he ever thought either of those things would be part of his job description, he said, “No, I didn’t.”
Mitchell said one of the things that he’s most proud of is helping the City of Lawton develop a plan to improve water distribution throughout the city. With improved coverage of pipes and plugs ready to pump water for fire trucks, it’s improved Lawton’s ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings from a 3 to a 1.
Working with the city council, Mitchell said it feels good to know that planning reviews and code inspections are making a positive impact on the city. He’s been involved with the development of what began as Wackenhut and later became Lawton Correctional Facility, the Republic Paperboard plant and industrial area, as well as Bar-S.
Michell’s been part of projects big and small. That means helping smaller businesses and contractors to develop feasible plans so that everything can go smoothly. It benefits everyone, including the firefighters who will have to respond whenever something happens.
“I want to make sure there’s no surprises coming,” he said.
With almost 35 years in the fire service, Mitchell said the evolution of training has been one of the best things he’s seen develop. Especially from when he started.
“It’s exponentially greater now than when I came on,” he said. “A lot of things have changed.”
Speaking of change, over the last 25 to 30 years, Mitchell said sleuthing the cause of fires has become a delicate science at times. There’s a lot to it.
“Fire investigation has really changed,” he said before adding that some things don’t change. “We’re truth seekers. We’re there to determine what caused the fire. We go in open minded.”
Investigations are conducted just like criminal investigations, Mitchell said. The fire is first investigated and, if there’s evidence of arson, that becomes its own investigation.
“The reality is that once the scene is processed, then it’s no different than a criminal investigation,” he said.
When there’s a death, it makes an impact to the investigator. Mitchell estimated investigating around 20 fatalities from fires over his career, including one that still haunts him: Three children died because they were unable to escape a burning home. The ones you can’t save leave a hurt behind on those used to saving the day.
“None of us enjoy that,” he said.
With arson investigations, it’s often difficult to attain a conviction without a confession or catching a person in the act. Mitchell said many people believe that fire destroys evidence. That is a wrong conclusion.
“In reality, the evidence wasn’t destroyed, it was transformed,” he said.
The dual hat of firefighter and investigator has led to a continuing education during Mitchell’s career. That helps when he joins law enforcement and insurance investigators to get to the bottom of a suspicious fire. He said most intentional fires are set for reasons of insurance fraud, spite or revenge, civil unrest and to cover another crime. It’s a role that doesn’t really end.
“We work pretty steady,” he said. “I’ve worked so many cases, I can tell you that fire investigation, arson investigations are the toughest.”
One of the favorite things Mitchell’s done is work to educate the public, especially schoolchildren. He is proud of the 2004 FEMA grant award of $75,000 that allowed Lawton Fire to purchase a fire safety house on a trailer that can be taken to schools. Children are allowed to get inside the simulated burning house. Over 10,000 kids have been through the house, he said.
“It’s probably the closest thing to putting someone in active fire conditions without putting them in danger,” he said. “Fire doesn’t discriminate.”
Although he knows he’s going to miss his role, Mitchell said he’s ready for retirement.
“I just think it’s the right time for me,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with being able to serve the citizens of Lawton. Nothing gives me more of a sense of satisfaction than to serve the public. It’s time to move on, but I’ve been blessed with the ability to serve the citizens.”
Mitchell said his family have been the reason why he’s been able to serve his city as well as he could. His wife of 32 years, Vicki, 27-year-old son Jacob and daughter-in-law Kaley, and his 21-year-old daughter Hannah have proven to be his backbone. He gives them all the credit.
“They’ve been putting up with late evenings and me being called out at all hours of the night,” he said.
Mitchell knows he’s leaving the office behind with it heading the right direction. Yes, they’re investigators, but they’re firefighters first, he said.
“We’re basically, everybody in our division came from the fire truck,” he said. “Once they’re here, we are the enforcement branch of the fire department. We’re working for the citizens of Lawton.”
Written by Scott Rains: email@example.com.