Fire Chief Interview: FIRE CHIEF CHARLES HOOD San Antonio, TX, Fire Department

Firehouse: You recently gave a “state of the department” address. How did that come about?

 

Hood: As you are well aware, communication within any organization can be a challenge, especially in a large metropolitan fire department. We have utilized various media to communicate with the troops – emails, newsletters, battalion chiefs meetings, company officers meetings and spending time with graduating classes of recruits and paramedics.

I happened to be at our wellness center working out and was approached by two young firefighters off a ladder company who were in for their annual physical. We engaged in conversation about the physicals and why they are important. As the conversation continued, we discussed several current events, new programs and projects. It was a worthwhile conversation, but I was frustrated about their lack of awareness in our department. It was like they were dropped in from Mars. I immediately met with my command staff to develop a plan for a “state of the department” address to reach every uniformed member within our department.

 

Firehouse: Question-and-answer sessions were conducted with about 96% of the department. What was the purpose?

 

Hood: The meetings were intended to share information on the department’s budget, performance metrics, construction of new facilities and department priorities for 2012. This was the first time the department has ever conducted such meetings with all our uniformed members. We were also privileged to have our city manager or deputy city manager in attendance for each delivery to thank our members for their service and answer their questions.

Our commitment to the members was to report back on each question asked and provide plans or solutions to the questions. As it turned out, the meetings were even more successful than anticipated; it was definitely a success. We will continue these meetings annually.

Firehouse: What is the state of training within the department?

 

Hood: We are very pleased with the state of training in our department. Our Training Division, which operates out of a state-of-the-art facility, is responsible for training our cadets as well as our incumbent firefighters. We average two cadet classes a year. Each cadet receives approximately 940 hours of academic and skills instruction, which includes the Firefighter I and Firefighter II curricula. Our class grade-point averages typically rank among the highest in the state.

As the profession of firefighting continues to evolve, it is critically important for our personnel to keep up with the changes in our field. Besides ensuring that all our personnel receive the minimum annual continuing education required by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, our incumbent personnel receive training through a variety of methods, including training at the company and battalion levels, as well as through our Field Training Officer program. In 2010, our personnel completed nearly 43,000 hours of formalized training in over 100 different training modules.

Training remains one of our highest priorities. If we are not properly trained, we cannot provide the highest level of customer service possible to the citizens of our community.

 

Firehouse: The department hasn’t faced tough budget cuts. You are hiring personnel, building, rebuilding or expanding fire stations and thinking of future needs. Will this continue?

 

Hood: Public safety is a top priority of our mayor, city council and city manager. Although the city has faced budgetary shortfalls for the past few years, the fire department has managed to protect its existing resources and add 165 firefighter and paramedic positions in the past six years.

The department is not anticipating any extreme general-fund budget cuts next year. Improvements, however, may not be as significant as we have seen in previous years. The SAFD is currently constructing two replacement stations, a new services/logistics facility and our new Public Safety Headquarters. Two more replacement stations are under design and an additional two replacements are in the bond issue to be voted on by citizens in May.

 

Firehouse: Does the department have a mentoring program?

 

Hood: We began development of a mentoring program in 2011, and hope to roll out the program in the very near future. The goal of our program will be to assist our newly promoted fire officers with career and character development; enhance their leadership skills and abilities; pass along institutional knowledge; assist in career progression and succession; and continue overall improvement of the department as a whole.

 

Firehouse: You have said the firefighters should have a roundtrip ticket home. How is safety playing a role in keeping members safe?

 

Hood: The safety of our members is absolutely the number-one priority of this administration and each member of our organization is fully aware of its importance. Our Safety Division is comprised of a division chief, executive officer and three captains assigned to a 24-hour shift. In addition to incident responses, the Safety Division is responsible for firefighter injury and death investigation, inspection of PPE (personal protective equipment), injury and accident analysis and trend identification.

Last year, we implemented our Vehicle Accident Review Board, which is comprised of line personnel. We want to ensure that accidents involving our vehicles are properly reviewed, fairly assessed and are consistent and predictable. It is a great risk-management tool to utilize peers to identify contributing factors and hopefully prevent future accidents.

Firehouse: Please describe your mandatory wellness/fitness program.

 

Hood: Having been a part of the Phoenix Fire Department and witnessing the development of a mandatory wellness/fitness program, I saw the benefits first hand. The program saved lives and enhanced the longevity and lifestyles of our members in Phoenix, including several of my friends. I wanted the same opportunity for my firefighters in San Antonio to enjoy a healthy career and a long, healthy retirement.

Our mandatory wellness/fitness program is modeled after the International Association of Fire Fighters/International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFF/IAFC) Wellness-Fitness Initiative and in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1582. We worked with our Local Union 624 to ensure that our program was a positive, individualized program that was non-punitive in nature. We are starting our second round of physicals as we speak.

Our Wellness Fitness Center is equipped with commercial-grade equipment so our members can work out on or off duty. We have also opened several satellite fitness centers throughout the city to provide additional locations for our personnel to work out on or off duty. We have a staff dietician who is available to meet with our employees and their families to create customized eating programs. She also visits the stations on request and prepares meals with on-duty personnel.

Growing up in the business, we were always told that you had to be tough. Our culture expected you to do your job no matter what and get back on the truck. Our firefighters and paramedics are with us for an average of 30-plus years. The emotional and mental health of them and their families is critical to our mission of providing great internal customer service.

We have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Peer Support Program (PSP), Volunteer Chaplaincy Program and staff psychologist that are all available 24 hours a day. These are all valuable resources for our members and their families.

 

Firehouse: How has the department embraced the use of new technology?

 

Hood: SAFD was one of the first departments in the country to adopt electronic patient care records 15 years ago. We continue to be on the leading edge of technology with a state-of-the-art GIS-based CAD (computer-aided dispatching) system, AVL (automatic vehicle location) dispatching and mobile data computers in the apparatus that provide routing to the scene as well as pre-plan data for the address.

One of the main priorities of any fire chief is to manage response times. Our new CAD system has reduced our emergency medical service time one minute and 28 seconds and our fire response time one minute and seven seconds from our old mainframe system. That’s pretty impressive. The SAFD was also recently awarded a grant to build an LTE (Long Term Evolution) network as a pilot project.

 

Firehouse: What are the top three priorities for the department?

 

Hood: The top three priorities of our department are safety, training and customer service. When I arrived here, I had several areas of focus that were developed to assist me in analyzing the department holistically. This year, I identified four additional areas to enhance our ability to take care of our customers both internal and external.

The first was to implement a major reorganization of the department. Second was to improve all communications throughout the department. We had a good start with the “state of the department” address. Third is to analyze and modify all training within the SAFD. This year, will begin to train all our cadets in Emergency Medical Technology (EMT) and implement an internal EMT refresher training. Fourth is to develop a succession plan and create mentoring opportunities for all of our members.

 

Firehouse: Has quarterly training with battalion chiefs using tabletop exercises helped in running fireground operations?

 

Hood: Who says we don’t fight fires anymore? Last year, we had 34 multiple-alarm fires, including a four alarm that began in a historic two-story building and quickly spread to an exposure that happened to be a 21-story high-rise with working fires on the fifth and seventh floors. We utilized 70 pieces of equipment and 216 personnel without a single injury.

Prior to this incident, we had simulated on multiple-alarm incidents and had discussed collapse zones; on this particular night, we had a total collapse of the Alpha and Delta walls without injury or damage of vehicles. Battalion training is a critical component in providing safe fireground operations.

 

Firehouse: What is happening with technical rescue and hazardous material response?

 

Hood: Last year, we opened new Fire Station 51, which added our second Technical Rescue Team. Our hazardous material response has been enhanced by the addition of a second Haz Mat Team located on the northwest side of our city at Fire Station 34. We have also added our eighth battalion district to improve our span of control and manage all of our Special Operations responses.

 

Firehouse: I understand you are the city’s first fire chief to come from outside the department. You apparently said it is your goal that this is the last time a fire chief comes from the outside. How do you plan for that?

 

Hood: Since 1854, the City of San Antonio had never hired from the outside. I am so very proud to be the first outside fire chief in the history of one of the oldest metropolitan fire departments in the country. But if there are not multiple qualified candidates who are capable of being the next San Antonio fire chief, then I have failed in one of my areas of focus. It would be very disappointing!

 

Firehouse: As fire chief, are you easy to talk to and accessible?

 

Hood: Very! Since the day I arrived in San Antonio, I have had an open-door policy with all of my members both sworn and civilian. Situational awareness was critical in developing firsthand knowledge of the challenges that my personnel faced and understanding from their perspective how to fix things.

I learned a long time ago as a busy engine captain that building strong relationships with my personnel is a critical component in providing great internal customer service. Our firefighters, paramedics and civilian employees are expected to provide stellar customer service to our citizens, some of whom may be having the worst day of their life. Customer service begins with me. It is my belief that you must lead by example. n

 

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