Fire Chief Leo Brown has served the city of Laurel as firefighter for nearly 29 years and continues to look forward to protecting and improving the city.
Brown was born and raised in Laurel and after high school, joined the Army where he served for seven years from 1983 to 1990. He worked as a 52 Delta operator/ repairman for four years and PLL and tams (dispatch/records) for his last three years of service.
When he left the army in 1990, he got a job working offshore for Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company (ODECO) in New Orleans. He was working two weeks on and two weeks off at a time.
In February 1992, he married Ann Ellis, who has been working for the city since 1999.
Brown had never had a job close to home, but once he got married, it started looking more and more appealing. His friend, Melvin Mack, who later became the city’s mayor, talked him into signing up for the civil service exam while he was on his two weeks off from ODECO. Mack told him he believed he would make a good fireman. He was right.
He did well but still had to wait for a position to become available. For a while, whenever the department was hiring, they would select an experienced firefighter who was trying to transfer into the department. But Brown was encouraged by another friend, Laurel Councilman Manuel Jones.
Brown finally got his chance in April of the following year and he has been with the department ever since. Over the next several years, he worked his way up from a probationary firefighter with no prior experience to a member of the department’s leadership. In 2003, he was promoted to lieutenant and, in 2007, he was promoted to captain. In 2016 he became a battalion chief and on July 1, 2020 he was named fire chief by Mayor Johnny Magee.
He credits his success to persistence and the previous experience he had in the military learning leadership qualities and people skills. “There is a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “You work with a lot of different people- it’s like a family.”
Overall, his leadership style tends to center on empathy for his team and the public that he serves. He noted that earlier in his career he noticed that some chiefs tended to distance themselves from the job that they left and the community that they grew up in and he felt that people should remember what it was like to be a part of the team. “You sat in them seats! Don’t forget!” he explained. “We lose sight of that sometimes and the guys feel like you lose sight of that,” he said.
One thing that meant a lot to Brown as he was starting out, and that he continues to focus on as chief, is to give credit where it is due and provide the best support for the team possible. “It meant a lot to me when I was coming up,” he said. “Compliment a job well done and get the stuff they need to do the job.”
He also works to encourage his team to build their skills so that they too can rise up in the ranks. “A lot of guys are real passionate about this job. I want them to learn this job so that one day they can sit over here,” he said referencing the chief’s position.
In addition to building up his team, Brown also enjoys working to increase public understanding of the services that the fire department provides.
“It takes a good ear and a thick skin,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what goes on. For example, water coming from the truck does not mean that the truck is losing water. It is not leaking it is just part of the process. I want to bridge that gap between public knowledge,” he explained. “I like dealing with the public. I’m a people person,” he said. “My door is always open.”
Brown’s goals for the future of the department include acquiring better training and equipment, building up the department’s personnel, increasing public awareness about the department and its work, and improving the city’s fire rating.
The Mississippi Fire Rating Bureau creates a rating system to grade fire departments and their surrounding communities. The rating is used to determine how well a fire department protects its community. These ratings are then used to help determine the cost of homeowners and some types of business insurances.
Factors that go into calculating this rating include the state of the water supply system, the level of firefighter training, the number and location of fire stations, response time, and manpower.
The City of Laurel is currently at a five and Brown would like to see the city get up to a 3 or 4 rating. This change would help the community be more protected from emergencies and would also save home and business owners money on their insurance.
The city already has plans in the works that will help make this happen. The city will be opening a new station and getting a new fire truck. Additionally, Chief Brown is looking to recruit more personnel to increase the size of the department. “The most important thing is personnel,” he explained. “That’s the last piece of the puzzle.” The department currently has 63 certified firefighters and Chief Brown would like to add between 10 to 12 new firefighters in the near future. He expects that the department will be able to achieve the goal of a four (or better) rating before he retires.
While he has considered retirement, he doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon. “My good days outweigh my bad days and I feel like I’m doing pretty good,” he said.
He and Ann live in Laurel. They have a daughter, Brittany, and a son, Landyon, and two grandchildren.