When fall classes commence, the University of Mississippi’s emergency medical services gear up for what is always their busiest time of year.
Oxford boasts a population of roughly 26,437 according to data from the 2022 US Census. During the academic year, that number swells, as UM brings nearly 20,000 students to town —plus students arrive for classes at Northwest Community College’s Yalobusha-Lafayette campus.
This nearly 76% increase in population forces emergency services in the city to adjust their operations to keep up with the crowds.
“Our busiest times of the year are during August and October,” Joey Gardner, Oxford Fire Department chief, said.
His department receives the most calls – many of them for emergency medical services – during the start of classes and the height of the college football season.
Sharon Kraun, the vice president of media and communications with Priority Ambulance out of Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi, confirmed this increase in call volume.
“We work alongside fire, so our information is the same,” Kraun said.
There are many reasons why EMS officials believe calls increase during this time.
“For a lot of these freshmen, this could be the first time they’re away from their parents and really exposed to certain stuff,” Gardner said. “They may not be accustomed to drinking like that or whatever else and end up in some tough situations and need help.”
Ahmer Khan, a former residential assistant in Stockard Hall, said that in his one semester working in the dorm, first responders from the fire department were required on the scene at least 20 times.
“It was usually for someone who passed out because they had too much to drink,” Khan said. “I’d say easily 80% of the time it was for someone usually drunk or having something to smoke.”
Khan could not remember the building ever being on fire, but he recalled two times the fire alarms were pulled anyway.
In addition to the local population and the students, football fans pack Oxford on game weekends, causing EMS call frequency to spike.
“Big games, especially when Ole Miss is winning, bring in the most people, and we are super busy with that,” Gardner said. “There are just so many people out and about. Hotels are full. People are drinking and carrying on and just having a good time.”
Celesia Dunn, a dispatcher for the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office, said the calls come not only from people on the Square after the games, but also from people attending football games at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“We have a lot of issues with pocket dials. It’s really bad,” Dunn said.
Most of the time, this is due to people, mainly students, accidentally activating their cell phones’ SOS systems.
“We spend a lot of valuable time just calling people back, so we try and tell them before the game starts, please turn off the emergency SOS on your phone.”
Despite the dramatic increase in the number of people they serve, the fire department does not receive additional manpower during these times of the year. According to Gardner, the state sets the required number of firefighters based on county and city numbers.
“The way (fire department service areas) are zoned is almost like its own county. The university does not factor into that count,” Gardener said.
The OFD is staffed with 76 people, three engines, two ladders and one rescue truck, with which it must shoulder all the additional weight.
This has required emergency services in Oxford to adapt in different ways.
To manage game day crowds, the fire department started stationing two to six people on the Square each night to assist with minor medical issues and injuries to take some of the strain off the ambulance service.
They now do this every weekend because of the growing number of students in Oxford.
“If you slip coming out of The Library and cut your leg, there is no need for an ambulance to have to deal with that when they are busy enough as is,” Gardner said. “The ambulances cover all of Lafayette County, which stretches all the way 30 minutes north to Harmontown, so they really don’t have time for minor things.”
Dunn said that having more personnel in the area has been effective.
“With students, it’s mostly intox(ication) calls when they’re on the Square at night and overheating,” Dunn said. “There are also a lot of fights, but some of that has gone down due to there being security guards out there now that deal with some of that.”
The fire department has also applied and been successfully funded for more life-saving equipment
“Recently, in the past few years, we were able to get Jaws of Life for each station,” Gardner said. “For a while we only had one set, but we received a grant and purchased another and then another.”
Despite the challenges, Gardner is proud of the fire department and its team.
“It does create some extra stress, but we make it work,” he said. “But, like I said, our numbers are set and they don’t adjust just because more people come to town.”