Texas Chief Brings Home Gold for Painting Detail

Aug. 16-- When a 72-year-old man in southern Travis County realized he could seriously hurt himself trying to paint the eaves on his home last week, he decided to show up at the nearest fire station and ask for help.

By the end of the day, a handful of firefighters from the Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department had made three trips to the man's house to sand the wood and paint two coats on the eaves -- a lot more work than rescuing a cat stuck up a tree.

"It's our mentality," said Chris Barron, the department's fire chief. "We're there to serve the public."

That mentality was acknowledged in a big way Thursday, when the International Association of Fire Chiefs named Barron the Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year at its annual conference in Dallas.

The majority of firefighters both in Texas and across the country are volunteers at small departments like Manchaca, where recruitment and retention of largely unpaid firefighters is critical to maintaining service, Barron said.

Barron, who also has served as the executive director of the State Firemen's and Fire Marshals' Association of Texas since 2006, secured several federal grants to pay for equipment, training and small stipends for volunteers at Manchaca and around the state, including a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

Since 2011, the Manchaca Volunteer Fire Department lost three of its five stations as the service area of the Austin Fire Department spread outward with the city's growing population. Barron's deft handling of that transition is part of why he's so highly regarded in the firefighting community, said Harvey Salinas, the president of the board of directors for Manchaca VFD.

"I feel that we are very blessed and very lucky to have him in our department," Salinas said. "I've seen quite a few chiefs in my career and sometimes I'm still speechless."

The role of volunteer firefighters, who usually work in rural areas where they can be the first to respond to an emergency, is often unknown to the families and homeowners who assume they're protected by paid firefighters, Barron said. Yet volunteers face the same dangerous situations, he added. When the fertilizer plant in West exploded in April 2013, 10 of the town's volunteer firefighters died fighting the blaze.

"During the wildfire season in 2011, there were people taking money out of their wallets to put fuel in the trucks," Barron said. "That's just what a volunteer firefighter is. Sometimes it's fighting fires, sometimes it's giving your life."

Barron's award comes a month after Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr was elected vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' board of directors, becoming the first woman on the board in its 140-year history.

Kerr, a fourth-generation firefighter, said Barron's work in Manchaca and around the state made him a clear choice for the national award.

"His service ... illustrates the depth of his commitment to the fire service, and to all the firefighters in Texas, be they volunteer or professional," Kerr said in an email.

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