Fire in four decades

KFD Chief Dannie Smith stands next to a silver fire ax, awarded to him by the Houston Fire Department Fleet Command Personnel in 2000, upon his promotion to Special Operations Assistant Chief. Now he’s planning to retire again, on Jan. 1, and, “This time when I’m done, I’m done.”

Kerrville Fire Department Chief Dannie Smith says his job includes “just about everything.”

He says KFD is staffed with 77 paid professionals. Of those, seven are administrative staff, officed in the Fire Department headquarters on Coronado Drive. The rest work out of one of Kerrville’s four fire stations, organized in battalions and companies.

Smith says, “KFD is the last fully-paid department from here to El Paso. We’re surrounded by volunteer departments. We have a good working relationship with them, and our mutual aid agreements allow us to provide each other assistance and support as needed. We meet with the county fire chiefs every other month, to make sure those relationships are maintained. Communication and collaboration are the keys to successful relationships in organizations and with community partners.”

He says the administrative staff oversee each mission of the department, Emergency Medical Service, Fire Marshal, Emergency Management, and Training.

Emergency Medical Service

EMS supervision has to take a big load, since emergency medical responses now represent 94 percent of KFD’s calls. Part of that is growing use of paramedics as first responders, and part is because Kerrville EMS is the primary ems provider for all of Kerr County. Inside city limits, their response is fast, but the far reaches of the county can be a half-hour or more from an EMS unit response. Just as in the case of volunteer firefighting, though, there is an organized corps of volunteer “first responders” who fill the gap. They can respond in their own vehicles, with their training, basic equipment and communication to assist the person until EMS can arrive.

Fire Marshal

Another reason the percentage of EMS calls is so high is that the number of fire calls are falling. A main cause of that is another of the administrative positions, the fire marshal. The Kerrville fire marshal concentrates on fire prevention and life safety.

“Buildings are built to be more fire-resistant now,” Smith says. “Any new building, or any building being renovated, has to meet the current fire codes. There’s an overall International Fire Code, and cities adopt it, then add any local requirements necessary. The codes insure the structures are protected by fire sprinklers and alarm systems, that the fire department has fast access in case of emergency, and that there are adequate exits to allow for evacuation.”

Besides inspecting new construction, he says the fire marshal regularly checks commercial buildings, and facilities like Peterson Hospital and the schools, to make sure all the safety precautions are in place.

Emergency Management

For city-wide potential problems, there is emergency management. Smith says, “Since 9-11 there’s been a national focus on emergency preparedness and homeland security, being ready to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from disasters that may strain local resources.

He says mitigation seeks to prevent problems, for instance by minimizing the effects of flooding through keeping homes and other buildings out of the flood plain. Preparedness preplanning is detailed in the city-county Emergency Management Plan, with its 22 annexes which cover everything from flood warning to hazardous material spills on Interstate 10. Response planning makes sure every agency in the county can coordinate and react as effectively as possible in the midst of chaos. Recovery lays out plans to repair damage and rebuild communities to “make right” whatever the disaster disrupted.

Training

Smith says modern firefighting is much more than jumping on a truck, and requires a special skill set, the product of training. “We are regulated by two state agencies,” he says. “The Texas Commission on Fire Protection and the Texas Department of State Health Services both establish certifications and continuing education firefighters and EMS personnel have to meet. All firefighters go through training to qualify for the job, and then must meet annual training requirements to maintain their skills and stay current with updated equipment and procedures.”

Fire Chief

“And the buck stops here, with me,” Smith says. “As the fire chief, I make sure everything comes together, administration, training, planning, and operations, and works smoothly and positively. I want the people of Kerrville to have the highest level of customer service and satisfaction possible. I believe we do that. In the last survey of city residents, KFD placed in the high 90s, scoring the highest rating of any city department. I always say, treat others the way you want to be treated.”

There’s a lot of experience behind that. Smith says he was born and raised in Houston, graduating from Evan E. Worthing High School in 1979. Shortly after, Smith says, “I spotted Winona. I struck up a conversation with her, and for our first date I took her to Shakey's Pizza, in Houston. We got married April 7, 1982.”

He says they now have two grown children. Courtney is in McKinney, working for Apple Computer, and Cory works for the Union Pacific Railroad in Richmond, Texas. Smith and Winona have three granddaughters, ages 15, 5, and 1.

Smith says he joined the Houston Fire Department in 1981, when he was 19, the first generation of his family to do so. While working his way from firefighter to assistant chief, he earned a bachelor of business administration from LeTourneau University, and a master of public administration from the University of Texas, Arlington.

He says he spent 22 years with the Houston Fire Department. “Firefighting has changed a lot over the years. When I started it was a large part fighting structure or brush fires. The fire trucks had open cabs, and firefighters rode standing on the tailboard.

“But now the cabs are enclosed, with safety bars and air conditioning, and each firefighter has a seatbelt. Today there is tremendous emphasis on firefighter safety, EMS, fire prevention and emergency preparedness have been added to our mission.”

In November of 1993, while he was with the Houston department, he was awarded a Citation of Valor by the Houston Firefighters Association, Local 341, after pulling an unconscious man from a burning building. They honored him with a second Citation of Valor in October of 1995, for successfully rescuing an unconscious six-year-old child, who fully recovered, from a second-story apartment fire that was nearing “flashover.”

Smith says there have been changes in strategy and tactics, but during Texas summers they can still end up in more than 100-degree heat, fighting fires that can exceed 1,000 degrees, encapsulated in 50-plus pounds of gear. He jokes, “It’s a little more comfortable in winter. Of course, in Texas winters you don’t end up with icicles hanging from your helmets.”

Smith says after his time in Houston Fire Department he served as the fire chief in Sugar Land, Texas. He was named “Texas Fire Chief of the Year” in 2008 by the Texas Fire Chief’s Association. He also served as fire chief in Pine Bluff, Ark., where he first retired in 2014.

“But then I got a call,” Smith says. “Texas First Group provides interim management services for Texas municipalities, and even though I had retired they asked me if I would take over the Kerrville Fire Department for four to six months, until the city found a permanent chief. I started Sept. 1, 2014, and somehow six months turned into six years. But I’ve announced my retirement, effective Jan. 1, and this time when I’m done, I’m done.”

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