Fort Worth

Firefighting is a calling, says Fort Worth’s retiring chief: ‘It’s about the mission’

Ask Fort Worth’s retiring Fire Chief Rudy Jackson about the fires he’s fought during his career and he’ll tell you there are too many stories to tell.

Or, ask him about how he’s achieved such a low turnover rate among firefighters since he’s been chief and he’ll tell you he credits the good people he has working for him.

Ask him about why he became a firefighter and he’ll tell you it was a calling. “I wanted to play sports,” he said.

But as humble as Jackson is, he’s proud to tell you his greatest accomplishment in his 11-year tenure as chief is that he’s never lost a firefighter in the line of duty. It was his job, Jackson said, to make sure everyone went home at the end of their shift.

“That’s what’s most important to me,” Jackson said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the mission. I try to do the right thing. I try to do right by people.”

A pinnacle for Jackson came a year ago when the city was awarded the highest rating, a 1, by the Insurance Service Office, or ISO, which is used to grade community fire services. The rating is based on such things as training, communications, equipment dispatched to fires, fire safety education, construction code enforcement and water supply.

The city had been rated ISO 2 for the prior decade. Ultimately, the higher ranking means homeowners insurance is lower in Fort Worth.

“In the world of fire, that’s one of the few things you can use to rate your fire department,” Jackson said. “We know we’re a good fire department. We know we’re one of the better fire departments in the country.”

After 35 years with the department, Jackson’s last day is Feb. 28.

Michael Glynn, a department captain and president of the local firefighters union, said Jackson has been a good chief and respectful when it came to management and labor issues. Glynn, who has been with the department for 12 years, said he’s been on a first-name basis with Jackson for the last few years.

“He’s always respected my post,” Glynn said. “He’s kept an open mind and he’s kept an open door. One of the biggest things he’s done, he’s helped us facilitate to ISO 1. That was a big deal. That’s good for the residents, the business community and economic development.”

Jackson was fire chief when Mayor Betsy Price was first elected to office. Price said she’s always respected his directness, responsiveness, willingness to listen and his honesty. She credits him with changing the department for the better.

“He’s never let being chief go to his head,” Price said. “He’s still the Rudy he was when he first started out. He truly has a servant’s heart. He’s not a bureaucrat. And he has a wicked sense of humor.”

He wanted a football career

At the age of 20, Jackson was attending Ranger Junior College, where he played defensive back on the football team, when he decided to test for the Fort Worth fire department. He went out to his first big fire — a house where hoarders lived — a few months after he joined the department in 1982.

“It was really smoky,” Jackson recalled.

For a few years Jackson, a Fort Worth native, moved from station to station wherever he was needed. He was eventually assigned permanently to Station 5, off Evans Avenue and Rosedale Street on the city’s near southeast side.

“I got to see and do a lot,” Jackson said. “Where I worked ... it was in the years when Fort Worth had a real bad gang problem. We saw everything.”

Jackson rose in rank and took over as the city’s 12th fire chief in 2007, besting 50 applicants. He had served as interim chief for six months before, after the death of then-Chief L. Charles Gaines.

One of his most challenging times came in the Great Recession, Jackson said. A few years after becoming chief, the nation sank into a recession and Fort Worth didn’t go unscathed. Jackson, who has an MBA, was faced with stretching resources, and when other city departments were laying employees off, he wasn’t.

“I had to learn to make it at the same time we were growing,” he said. “We had some hard times.”

Dallas Fire Chief David Coatney said many of the assistant chiefs who have served under Jackson have gone on to become fire chiefs in other cities, including in the Metroplex. He said that’s happened because of the training they’ve received working with Jackson.

Coatney said he’s even called Jackson a few times in the 18 months he’s been Dallas’ fire chief to seek some advice.

“Rudy’s always been a consummate professional,” Coatney said. “He’s always looking to the future and that’s hard to do in our profession because it’s based on history and tradition. I have the utmost respect for the man.”

Firefighters come first

Jackson’s seen the department grow to 43 stations from 28 when he first joined the department. Five new stations opened during his tenure as chief. Just under 1,000 employees work for the department.

Through all of that growth, Jackson put the health of his firefighters at the forefront. In the last two years, he’s created a task force to address the increase in the incidence of cancer among firefighters and what can be done to reduce that risk. It’s already led to several changes in protocol, down to when and how equipment is cleaned. Some of that is now done right at the scene.

“Firefighting, we all know that this is a dangerous job,” he said. “Back when I first came on the job, we really didn’t wear our masks.”

There’s also a task force to address mental health issues and helping firefighters and others in the department to recognize signs that an issue might exist.

There are efforts to change the culture, the machismo, that the dirtier a firefighter is, the harder he or she has worked.

“That’s a huge change for our guys,” Glynn said, but an important one. Each time they touch their gear after a fire, it means new exposure to carcinogens, he said.

“Rudy’s done a good job,” Glynn said. “Rudy will be remembered as a good chief.”

Valerie Washington, an assistant city manager who works closely with Jackson, calls him level-headed and credits him with creating a sense of community within the department.

“He approaches each problem, each situation with calmness,” Washington said. “People know he will always listen to them. It’s a great place for a new chief to come in, take the reigns and continue to move the department forward.”