By George Slaughter
Russell Wilson, the former Katy fire chief, is taking the same job in Mesquite, but before leaving he took some time to reflect on his Katy tenure.
Wilson submitted his resignation to Mayor Bill Hastings October 9. Wilson’s last day was Friday. Hastings said he did not know of Wilson’s plans when Wilson gave his notice. He said he later learned of Wilson’s plans to take the Mesquite position.
Coming to Katy
Wilson said his wife, Lisa, learned of the Katy job opening when it was available in 2016. He was assistant fire chief in Irving then. But it wasn’t until he was in the area that he decided to take a closer look at things.
He grew up in Bridge City, near Port Arthur, Orange, and the Texas-Louisiana border. His late father, H.W. Wilson, was a football coach who led the Bridge City Cardinals to a state title in 1966. The Bridge City Independent School District dedicated a monument to memorialize that team in 2016. Wilson, Lisa, and his mother, Ramona, represented the Wilson family at the ceremony. Ramona Wilson unveiled the plaque.
After the ceremony, and dropping off Ramona at home in College Station, Wilson said he suggested that he and Lisa drive to Katy and look at the community.
“It was flying blind, basically,” Wilson said. “We saw a lot of families out, some of them in the parks, some in the churches. I saw dads tossing balls with their kids in their yards and it felt like a real family atmosphere.”
On the drive back to North Texas, the Wilsons began discussing the opportunity. Wilson said the department was small, but growing fast.
Meanwhile, in Katy, then-Mayor Fabol Hughes said he assembled a committee, including then-Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Brawner and City Administrator Byron Hebert, to conduct the job search. Hughes said they had a preliminary list of about 20 candidates and narrowed it down to two before making Wilson the final choice for the job.
“He was ready to go and seemed pretty knowledgeable,” Hughes, mayor from 2013-2017, said, adding that when Wilson started in Katy, he told Wilson, “’This is your department, my friend. Run it as you see fit.’”
Taking Over in Katy
The fire department was transitioning from a fire department staffed, in many cases, by part-time volunteers to a full-time, professional fire department, Hughes said. Such a transition meant new and more firefighters with advanced training. Hughes said many of the volunteers needed to get new certifications but were unable or unwilling to do so as the department modernized.
“You had a lot of people who would come in from the fields and get on the fire trucks and go fight fires,” Hughes said, adding that firefighting has evolved over time because of the chemicals and corrosives that cause fires. “Firefighting is highly technical. He (Wilson) knew all these things.”
Brawner, mayor from 2017-2019, said Wilson gave the volunteer firefighters “every chance” to educate themselves and prepare to meet the new standards that were being set.
“You want all of your personnel to receive certain certifications,” Brawner said. “It made for a better fire department because everybody was trained like that. Several needed more time to work on course materials, but everybody had to pass the assimilator drills that we were doing with the Houston Fire Department.”
As the city grew, it made a fire protection agreement with the Fort Bend County Municipal Utility District #151 in 2018. Under the agreement, the district provides the facilities and equipment. The city provides the firefighters, all of whom have first been trained as emergency medical technicians. The district pays the costs, along with a 5% administrative fee.
The district and city accepted a big piece of the equipment, a new fire truck, at the district’s fire station at 2944 FM 1463. The district sits in northwest Fort Bend County, outside the Katy city limits but in the Greater Katy area For the approximately 3,000 households in the Firethorne subdivision there, getting fire protection has been a concern.
Firethorne is effectively the city’s third fire station. The second, at 25420 Bell Patna Dr., opened in March 2019.
Officials believe both the increased fire protection and a rating achieved by the fire department will enable Katy homeowners and businesses to save money on future insurance premiums. Officials said insurance companies review the Class 1/1X ISO (for Insurance Services Office) rating, and either offer immediate rebates, or adjust premiums at the next renewal period.
On the ratings, communities can score between 1-10, with Class 1 being the best. Evaluations are in fire department (50%), community water supply (40%), and efficiency of emergency communications (10%).
In Texas, Katy is one of 68 cities out of more than 1,500 with this rating.
Nationally, Katy is one of only 300 out of 27,000 communities with this rating.
“I’m very proud of that, and hope the new chief continues that,” Brawner said. “It’s a win-win proposition for our citizens and property owners who moved into the City of Katy.”
Wilson said having a positive impact on firefighters, particularly the newer ones, and the relationships built there, is his proudest accomplishment in Katy. He said he learned how much can be accomplished when everyone is on the same page, pushing in the same direction.
“That’s been a wonderful experience here in Katy, is to have the unity that I’ve had with my troops, and I’m very, very grateful to them for that,” Wilson said.
Brawner said Wilson is a hard worker with a great sense of humor. He said Wilson’s departure would be a great loss for Katy.
“There are about 70, 80 personnel in the fire department, and they had a high respect for him,” Brawner said.
Hughes wished Wilson well in his new role.
“I think he’s going to do a wonderful job in Mesquite,” Hughes said. “He’s going to a large, large fire department. It’s a big management job there.”
Parker to Be Interim Chief
Assistant Chief Kenneth Parker will become Katy’s interim fire chief. Wilson wished him well.
“I think Chief Parker will do a great job,” Wilson said. “I think he is well-respected by the troops, and I think he’s eager to continue learning in the role he will be in. I think he will do a fine job.”
Wilson cited three immediate challenges for Parker and the fire department.
In achieving the Class 1 ISO rating, Wilson said the fire department had to overcome significant staffing issues. The city must continue to maintain those staffing levels to keep that status. Firefighters have been working out of the Fussell Senior Center, 5870 E. 5th, for the time being.
A second challenge is to make improvements to Fire Station #1 on Avenue D. In January, tests showed the building to have several different levels of mold, including toxic black mold.
A third challenge is to create and implement a replacement cycle for the heavier trucks in the fleet.
Hastings said no discussions have been held about proceeding with the search for a new permanent chief, but expected that the city would post the opening in about a month.