SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood kicked off his 10-year anniversary with the department with a huge honor. Thursday, SAFD announced it had received a Class 1 rating by the Insurance Services Office. That is a distinction that less than one percent of fire departments have.
The insurance services office evaluates fire departments response times, training, communications and equipment. All firetrucks will now have new logos commemorating this classification.
It was icing on the cake, as Chief Hood thought back over everything he's experienced over the last decade.
Hood is San Antonio's first African American fire chief and the first to be hired from outside the city.
"I'm really blessed to be here and I'm surrounded by really, really great people," he said with a smile.
A lot has changed since day one in his uniform.
"Having ballistic equipment on our rigs, like what you see SWAT using. Being able to drop palletized resources to treat hundreds of people at a moment's notice," he said.
Hood said 30-40 trucks are now equipped with vests and helmets used in situations like the recent Rolling Oaks Mall shooting, where firefighters responded to rescue victims. He said training for this equipment and the situations that go with it is always ongoing.
Hood has also spent time on infrastructure, which he says improves response time.
"There have been about 15 projects since I've been here, whether it's this building we're sitting in now, our dispatch center, fleet services, Emergency Operations Center, multiple stations we've either remodeled or rebuilt," he said.
Some improvements have been in response to problems, like in 2014, when there were 10 DWI's within the department.
"What that made us do is become more resilient as far as providing resources to our members that have issues, but also to design a discipline system that is going to be fair and corrective to make sure those issues are taken care of, put the responsibility back on the member, and if they can't control those behaviors, they can't be on our fire department," he said.
There was just one DWI arrest in 2015 after Chief Hood increased the punishment, but also added resources.
"We've been very successful in managing that, but it is a challenge to make sure your members have the resources they need as far as behavioral health, as far as member support, because we're just like anyone else," he explained.
While adding 221 firefighters over the last decade, his main goals haven't changed: serve the people and make sure firefighters get home each night.
There have been some tragedies and some very close calls. Still, managing a team that large means always looking to the future in creative ways. Changing technology, population and even building materials have fueled firefighting innovation.
"Way back when, things that would burn were wood, paper. They were fabric. They were cotton. Now, we're burning plastics, we're burning chemicals, they're burning fiber boards. Those things burn incredibly fast, so the speed of fire has changed," Hood said.
Hood's job is to bring in training and equipment that can keep up with that change.
"The severe storms that we face, we have to be prepared for that," he said.
One way he's learned, and is still learning, is to adapt with the help technology.
"We have used drones in the last year to take pictures and do creative things, but now we're working on a program called a Raptor program. We've actually sent people to become drone pilots, we have purchased the drones, and so we are training actively with that," he said.
Soon, drones will be sent into burning buildings too dangerous for firefighters.
"If you look at the Ghostship fire in Oakland, where they lost a lot of lives, they were unable to put a human in that building because it was not safe enough. We will be able to put a drone in a building like that in Oakland and see if there's any survivors," he said.
The future holds more than new gadgets, though. Difficult conversations will continue after the city and fire union hit an impasse over a collective bargaining deal.
"Being a firefighter, being a part of the union, I understand the challenges and I understand their needs. Being part of a city trying to manage finances, I also understand that piece, and so you have to balance it. I get stuck in the middle. I have completely stayed out of all of it. As a fire chief, or a police chief, your job is to manage the day-to-day operations of the fire department or the police department," he said.
When asked if he sees the impasse causing stress and affecting morale within the department, he said, "You hear things, but you don't see any of that playing out on the street."
No matter what's going on internally, he said firefighters will be there when their community needs them.