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By CHARLES RICHARDS
Larry Wright, fire chief for the City of Paris, sat down last week for a question-and-answer interview with eParisExtra.com in which he shared his perspective after his first two weeks on the job.
“I’m still treading water,” said Wright, who began working for the city on Nov. 26, hired by city manager John Godwin to succeed Ronnie Grooms, who retired on Oct. 12 after 34 years with the department.
“I’m trying to get a handle on all the projects, trying to learn the names of the personnel. It takes a while to learn them all, but I’m learning, slowly but surely,” said Wright, who observed his 64th birthday last week, one day before the interview.
Asked about his first impressions, Wright said he is “really impressed,” saying Paris firefighters are “far more technically advanced than I expected. They’re doing a lot of things that a lot of the departments in the metroplex are just now starting to do.”
Wright has 33 years in fire department service, dating back to 1979, when he signed on as a basic fire department paramedic with the fire department in the north Dallas township of Addison. He rose through the ranks there, holding every position there was to hold.
He made assistant chief in Addison, and in 1999 he was hired as fire chief in Rowlett, a northeast Dallas suburb, where he turned the department into one of the best in the metroplex.
After nine years there, he “retired” in 2008 to move with his wife to the lakes area of Central Texas, where they own a ranch, and he was hired on as fire chief in Marble Falls.
Question: So why have you now “un-retired” to come to Paris?
Answer: John Godwin was the assistant city manager at Rowlett, and he and the city manager hired me. I reported to John for about four years, until he left and went to Fairview (as town manager there). So John and I go way back — probably 13 years. He visited with me on the telephone after Mr. Grooms announced his retirement. The deal was, he liked my style of managing in Rowlett. He saw the good things I did for that department, and this department almost mirrors Rowlett when I went to work over there – the same issues, the same type of personnel, the same size. I think immediately he thought I would be a good fit for the department. I came up here and looked over the city, and I thought, “Boy, this is nice over here.” So I came out of retirement.
Question: Some people felt strongly that the city manager should have promoted someone from within the department.
Answer: I know there was grumbling about bringing an outsider in, but I think it was time for me to come in. Paris was to the point they had so many internal problems. It’s like a person going to a college and getting a bachelor’s degree, and staying right there and getting a master’s degree, and staying right there and getting a PhD, and then teaching at the college. You never get any outside experience. I think that’s what was happening here; they weren’t getting any ideas from the outside.
Question: How have our firefighters responded to your arrival?
Answer: I’ve seen the morale improve 9,000 percent since the first day I got here. I’m not going to speak bad about the previous fire chief. I don’t know him, and I haven’t met him, but apparently the men in the department weren’t happy with the way things were going administratively. Even before I got here, I talked to (one of the ranking officers in the fire department), and he said everybody was excited about me coming. I think they (Paris firefighters) were ready for someone from the outside to come in and maybe bring some fresh ideas in.
Question: How would you describe your approach?
Answer: These are grown men, and they don’t need me to keep my thumb on them all the time. I told them, “I’m here to deal with the politics downtown at City Hall, to make sure you’ve got a budget that you can have the things you need, and I’m going to stay out of your way.” I told them not to expect me to show up at a fire and take over and start pointing at all. I said I was going to be the one on the curb, on the other side of the street, waving at them, telling them how good of a job they are doing. That’s the kind of chief I want to be. My days of firefighting and riding an ambulance and driving a fire truck are over. They’ve been trained, and they know what is expected of them. I may have to make a decision sometime that some of them don’t like, but they’re just going to have to get over it. You know, let’s go on down the road and make it happen.
Question: What changes will you be making?
Answer: We need to work on our relationship with the voluntary fire departments in the county. If we ever have a large fire here – any kind of large disaster – we are going to have to depend on them helping us out. I’m holding out a hand to them. I told our guys, our being an island on our own is going to stop. We need to open our hands out and say “We’re here to help you.” We need to establish a radius around Paris that’s reasonable, that we can be available to respond, and be able to spend money on personnel or whatever and get them out there and help out, because you know, these voluntary departments, they need us. Eventually, I’d like to redo our training tower (on the county fairgrounds) and get a burn room in it to where we can invite the volunteers in and work with them and them work with us on different scenarios to where we all feel comfortable with each other. We’ve got a full HazMat (hazardous materials) trailer out here, and I bet you money nobody has ever made the overture to any of the voluntary fire departments that if you ever have a HazMat situation, give us a call, we’ll come. I want to be able to tell them we’ll come.
Question: Any other innovations?
Answer: I’m going to try to revive the dive team. The chief before me cut it out of the budget. We’ve got the equipment sitting out at Station 4, and we’ve still got some guys who would be interested in doing that, and get them back up to the level of training that they would be able to respond and assist Sherman-Denison, Bonham, Sulphur Springs, or wherever — if they’ve got a drowning, a body recovery, or whatever that we could offer our services. It could be six months or a year. We’ll use the personnel we’ve got here, just like we do the HazMat team. You know, I want this department to be the shining star of Northeast Texas. I want it to be the go-to fire department if something needs to be handled. You know, we’re the “big brother” for this area, and we need to act like it.
Question: What else new is on the horizon?
Answer: I’ve already asked our personnel to sign up for the national fire academy at Emmitsburg, Md. It’s a national school for firefighters, and I’ve had probably 10 or 15 sign up. Not all at once, but they would be up there two weeks, and the good thing about it is it’s free. The federal government pays for the airline tickets, they pay for the dormitory rooms, and the only thing you’re out is the meals, and that’s like $225 for two weeks, three meals a day. It’s great training. Twenty percent is what they learn up there from the class, and eighty percent is the contracts they make from all over the country. There are firefighters there from Hawaii, Alaska, Maryland, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma … A lot of times they get back and say, “You know, we don’t have it as bad here as we thought we did” – after hearing some of the war stories from the other guys.
Question: When you were fire chief at Rowlett, you developed a reputation for working with the citizenry. Talk about that.
Answer: Back before 9-11 – the summer before 9-11 – I got a wild hair to create a citizen response team to come to the fire scene and rehab the firefighters – bring drinks, snacks, things like that. Well, I sent two guys to the national fire academy to go through what they call a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainer class, and they came back about the time that 9-11 hit. We embarked upon a program of training the citizens of Rowlett to be the responders for a community emergency response team. It blossomed, and the federal government was throwing grant money at it to buy equipment, teach classes and all that. They came out to fire scenes, and we even got them involved in helping us reload fire hose back into the fire truck after the fire was out. And now they’re 150-strong in Rowlett, and they’ve got their own equipment. They’ve got trailers, radios, shirts and vests, and they automatically respond whenever Rowlett has a fire. Firemen were a little skeptical at first, but now they get mad if they don’t show up. You know, “Where’s my coffee?” They also helped us with lost children and they manned barricades in floods, and did other things.
Question: There have been complaints about the lack of women or minority firemen here: What are your thoughts about that?
Answer: There is a rule in the personnel handbook, and I have got that on my list to visit with Mr. Godwin about — a rule established years ago, I guess right after the big tornado — that required people to live within 30 minutes of the town square. That’s one of the stumbling blocks; it limits your ability to recruit, and just about every other fire department has dropped that rule. You know, firemen work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, so it’s nothing for them to drive 50 or 75 miles to work, because they only do it one day out of three. With this rule, if we recruit a firefighter from Sherman-Denison area, they’d have to move over here, and the money we pay a beginning firefighter, a lot of times it’s not incentive to move over here. There is a reason for the rule – if you have a big fire, you want to be able to call extra help in and for them to respond quickly. But I think there are enough firefighters and police officers that live in this area, and with mutual aid like I was talking about, we could afford to drop that rule. If I can get that rule changed, I’m going to try to have some brochures made up and do some kind of recruiting spin out around Kilgore, Sulphur Springs, and probably in the edge of the Metroplex to see if we can draw some people in here – including blacks, Hispanics and females — to test. They’re out there; you’ve just got to go look for them. We did that in Rowlett.
Question: How do you feel about the department’s vehicles and other equipment?
Answer: I’ve already found the rolling stock here, the fire trucks, are way beyond their prime. We’ve got a new fire truck, but the other two are way past the point that they need to be replaced, or at least put in reserve. And this ladder truck out here isn’t really the type of vehicle that the fire department needs for this city. And it’s past its prime, too. As a rule of thumb for a fire department, you put a piece of apparatus in service for 10 years, and then you take it off the front line and put it in reserve, and you keep it in reserve about 10 years and sell it. Fire trucks are running a lot more these days, compared with when I started with the fire service because we didn’t do first responder and ambulance calls. I mean, our vehicles sat in the fire station until the bell rang and there was a fire. So, nowadays we’re putting a lot more wear and tear on the equipment, and wearing them out quicker. Maintenance costs run up quicker every year a truck is in service.
Question: It’s not easy to replace all that at once, is it?
Answer: No, this is going to have to be a slow process. You can’t just go out and buy four or five fire trucks. Dallas could, but we can’t. But we’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to look at the maintenance records of the two older trucks we’ve got now and see which one probably needs to be put in reserve now.
Question: The Paris fire department has been marked by increasing turnover in recent years. What can be done about that?
Answer: I think me coming is going to slow that down a little bit, because I’ve already heard rumors that some of the guys in the department that were ready to retire because of the situation have decided to stay and kind of see what happens. I think pay needs to be looked at to see where we are compared to the market. We’re pretty close; it’s not far off. Firefighters are notorious about not jumping ship unless there’s really bad working conditions. They’re pretty loyal. There’s a brotherhood, because these guys eat, live, sleep, breathe, and fight fire together every third day. When you see a fire truck go to the store, everybody goes because you never know when you’re going to get that call. The whole engine, if they order food and it gets set down in front of them and they get a call, they’ve got to leave it sitting there and go on call. That’s why they develop such a brotherhood and it’s why a lot of them don’t leave. It’s because they’ve gotten so close to one another that they don’t want to leave.
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Charles Richards Charles Richards moved to Paris in 2004 after retiring from a 40-year career in journalism – the last 26 years as a news writer and sports writer with The Associated Press in Dallas and Washington, D.C. In mid-2004, The Paris News coaxed him out of retirement, and he began covering the police, court and regional beat for The Paris News. Then in early 2005, he was switched to coverage of a sharply divided Paris City Council. He was appointed by the City Council in 2006 to the 12-member City Charter Review Commission, which extensively rewrote the outmoded document. His writing awards include two first-place awards in statewide competition for feature writing. The most recent was his 2005 story on a Paris doctor’s startling use of leeches in a successful attempt to re-attach a man’s severed ear. Over his career, Richards’ interview subjects include Alabama Gov. George Wallace, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, David Koresh, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali and numerous other political and sports figures. He is an alumnus of Texas Tech, where he was editor of the school newspaper. He lives in Paris with his wife, Barbara, who is retired after 30 years as a teacher and high school counselor.
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