Several Gonzales Fire Department career officers expressed their desire during a city council workshop earlier this month to see a full-time paid chief be hired to lead the department into its next phase.
The Gonzales City Council held a special session on Thursday, Oct. 14, to discuss the vacancy created when Keith Schmidt stepped down after being appointed the new Gonzales County Sheriff last month to succeed the late Robert Ynclan.
The council had previously discussed steps that would help the city lower its key rate, including the hiring of a full-time paid fire chief to oversee the Gonzales Fire Department, which is comprised of both career and volunteer firefighters.
During the Oct. 14 meeting, Mayor Connie Kacir said Article 5.3 of the city’s Code of Ordinances that “in the absence of the chief, your first assistant chief or your assistant fire chief automatically takes that position.” The assistant chief is Jason Whiddon, who was unable to attend the meeting.
“I never at any time felt the city was unmanned,” Kacir said. “We have a document that was in effect that covered that.”
Kacir said she did not think it was appropriate for the council to rush into a decision regarding the chief, regardless of whether or not the city chose to hire a paid full-time leader for the department.
“Obviously, health and safety is number one. I would hope that our fire chief is the most qualified and experienced on the scene,” Kacir said. “You have lives at risk when you're in that command post.
“I'm not opposed to a full-time fire chief, and your current sheriff, your former fire chief, made that very comment in prior budget meetings. But again, what I thought we were doing today was to give us an opportunity not so much to rush to action that's going to change what we've had in place for decades and I feel it's worked very well for decades. I'm not saying that now is not the time to make some changes, or to modify it. But what's important to me is that we have the best practice.”
One of the first paid professionals to speak was Gonzales Fire Marshal and Battalion Chief Scott Raven, who indicated to him, it is more important to have a person with necessary certifications to lead the department than to decide if that person should be a paid employee or not.
“It doesn't matter if they get paid or volunteer,” Raven said. “What matters, I think, to the city and the department and the citizens, is that we continue to move forward like we have been doing, and we progress. And I think by doing that, we have to find somebody with that pedigree. Somebody that has those (Texas Commission on Fire Protection) credentials that can be head of the department and lead us into the future.”
Capt. Matt Fellows praised Schmidt and said he had “he utmost respect to the career and volunteer members of this department due to his leadership, his experience and his training.” But, he said, “now is the time to advance Gonzales Fire Department by appointing a career fire chief to continue the work that needs to be done.”
“It is almost impossible for a volunteer part time fire chief to keep up with these new regulations that we have to continuously keep up with,” Fellows said. “Luckily, Chief Schmidt had Battalion Chief Wade Zella working Monday through Friday to keep this department current with these mandates. So as I look at our department, there's one person that has dedicated his career to the citizens of Gonzales and that is Battalion Chief Wade Zella.
“Wade Zella has the respect of both career and volunteer members, exceeds the training requirements and has that experience required to be our next fire chief. The fire chief's position must first have the respect of all the members and the chief must meet a wide variety of extensive training in both firefighting and firefighter safety. The chief must have the experience to unite and lead.”
Life member Kevin Pirkle, a former volunteer, told council members “you're in a tough spot. You have to have those volunteers.”
“I've heard from the paid guys here. They can’t do it by themselves,” Pirkle said. “But I can also tell you part of my decision to retire out of the fire department when I did was due to the fact that Keith wanted me to have that training, but with my full time job, I didn't have the ‘want to.’ And there's no way as a volunteer chief at that time, possibly being that person that was going to make that call in that front yard, that I could ask any of these guys to do something that I wasn’t credentialed to do myself.”
Pirkle also noted the vacancy in District 4 on the council and pointed out there is “a section of the city that's not being represented.”
“That's a big deal. You need to hear from that side of the city because they have a stake in this deal too,” Pirkle said. “But by all means, you guys, we cannot get rid of the volunteer department. We can't go to a paid full time Fire Department. You guys can't afford it.”
An emotional Schmidt addressed the council as a volunteer and said he had wanted the department’s career and volunteer staff to sit down together and “why don't they figure out what's best for the department and then bring that back to the city and say this is what we need to do, and this is going to take us 20 years down the road.
“Because here's my fear. If tonight y'all say we're going with a paid chief … and Wade can do the job … if we don’t do this correctly and we don’t keep these volunteers involved, what’s it going to cost the city … by best math is that it’s going to cost you about a million dollars a year,” Schmidt said. “For the last 12 years or so that’s I’ve been chief, we’ve been able to save that money.
“Tomorrow, if you go with a paid fire chief, will all of the volunteers quit tomorrow? I wouldn’t think so. Why would they? They love Wade just as much as they care for me. I’m just telling y'all that you better be careful. Because if you run the volunteers off, what will happen in my opinion, is you're going to have to go to a seven-man Fire Department per shift. That means you would have to hire nine men. “That's going to cost you guys, when you get through paying over retirement and all the benefits and all that, that's gonna cost you about a million bucks a year,” Schmidt added. “Can the city afford to do that? That’s your call and you probably can, but where is that money going to come from? Will it come from the street improvements that we've been doing? Will it come from our parks department?”
Schmidt also noted that the department provides fire protection to about 43 percent of the county and if someone on the council found out all seven paid members on a shift were at a structure fire outside city limits and there were no volunteers, then “I bet you the next command coming out here says you guys don't need to go outside city limits. So then how can we protect that 43 percent we’re currently protecting?”
No action was taken during the meeting and council agreed to hold another meeting on the issue at a later date after the fire department had a chance to meet as Schmidt had suggested.