Justin Martin can remember being 4 or 5 years old and watching Columbus firefighters slide down the pole at Fire Station 1 on College Street while preparing to answer a call.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do that when I get older,'” he said. “… I remember them getting in the firetruck. It was loud, the sirens going. … That stuck with me.”
Martin’s mother, Brenda Martin, worked as a dispatcher when 911 was part of the city fire department in the late 1980s, so Justin spent a lot of time as a child in the station with the firefighters.
“He loved it because they would let him sit in the firetruck, show him the pole — he was too little to slide down the pole — (and) pet the dog,” Brenda remembered. “… I loved the fire department, and he did too.”
In fact, when dispatchers became part of Lowndes County E911, the firefighters — who Brenda said were “like family” — told her she should become a firefighter.
Instead, roughly 30 years later, Justin has taken on that mantle.
“I just had it in my heart to … figure out a career where I could help people and just be part of my community,” said Justin, who has been with Columbus Fire and Rescue for three years. “I wanted to have purpose in the career I chose.”
From fitness to firefighting
Firefighting is an extremely physical job, Justin said. Not only does spending hours at a scene putting out a fire require physical endurance, but most of the calls they respond to are medical. That can involve lifting patients and occasionally carrying them, sometimes in small, tight spaces where it’s hard to move.
“(Fitness is) a huge component of firefighting because firefighting is very physically demanding on your body and very stressful,” Justin said. “Fitness helps kind of balance that … and it definitely helps you to be more helpful on any kind of scene.”
Before joining CFR, Justin was no stranger to physical fitness. After graduating from Mississippi State, he worked at Core Fitness where he was a personal trainer.
“My favorite thing there is meeting people and watching them meet their goals,” he said.
He remembers one client who lost 50 or 60 pounds, got off her blood pressure and diabetes medications and now runs races.
“It was a year process,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t overnight, no magic pill thing. But she stayed consistent, that was the key thing.
“In fitness, you’re going to have ups and downs,” he added. “It’s not straight to the top.”
Justin also competed in powerlifting competitions around the state. Powerlifting involves squats, bench-pressing and deadlifts. Like wrestling, competitors are organized by weight class. The couple of times he made it to the national competition — when he was in his 20s, before joining CFR — he competed against 40 or 50 other people in his weight class, he said.
“At the state level I won, but the national level, I think I was top 15,” he remembered. “… That was in 2016, so I was like 29 (or) 30.”
It wasn’t long after that when Martin decided to pursue that old childhood dream of becoming a firefighter.
Despite Justin’s experience with physically demanding jobs, he found firefighting completely different from the jobs and competitions he’d done when immersed completely in the fitness industry.
“I wasn’t used to dealing with emergency situations,” he said. “That was definitely different, dealing with the adrenaline rush of … going to fire calls, having medical emergencies, having to do lifesaving CPR. That was definitely something to get used to.”
In one call during “those early months” after he joined the force, he and the other firefighters spent a long time battling a house fire in South Columbus.
“I just remember how hot it was, and the heat,” he said. “And just remember thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get more physically in shape for it.'”
‘Men of honor’
Brenda said it sometimes scares her to think of him going into dangerous situations on the job.
“I was dispatching people out to the fires and everything, but it’s kind of scary when it’s your son,” she said.
Still, she’s proud of him.
“Them guys are just some of the best guys, the firefighters,” she said. “They’re funny too. … But they’re men of honor. They love their families. They love God. … They don’t make a lot of money, but they risk their lives every day going in burning buildings. So to me they’re heroes. I’m always praying that God will watch out for him when he’s going to a fire.”
Justin’s favorite part about the job is the camaraderie between firefighters, who spend long hours together on shifts, often on holidays and weekends. He said he’s learned a lot from his fellow firefighters, from cooking to how to use tools.
“You become lifelong friends,” he said.
When he’s not working — either at the fire station or at Core Fitness, where he still works part-time — he’s spending time with his wife, Kasenda, and his three kids, a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twin boys. Having a supportive family — he particularly credited Kasenda with keeping en eye on their kids while he’s away at work — is critical for firefighters, he said.
“Now my kids get to come up here and be around firemen and play on the firetruck,” he said. “It’s a nice full circle.”