Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 1, 2019.

Front & Center

Through personality, will, and lessons learned from a legendary mentor, Chief Charles Hood has transformed San Antonio’s fire department into a national leader.


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As Charles Hood bounds into the cafeteria at the San Antonio Fire Department’s Fire Training Academy, a shiny object catches his eye: the lustrous bald dome of an instructor, who has just sat down for lunch.

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“That’s a shiny head there, ninja, what’d you put on that thing today?” Hood says playfully, peering down at the man’s head. The instructor turns to greet the chief with a big smile. “Did you buff that thing?” Hood asks. “Don’t move, let me check my teeth.” The room fills with laughter.

Hood, chief of the San Antonio Fire Department, is holding court and is clearly in his element. There’s talk of gumbo recipes, banter about the latest fires and the training schedule, and family news. Hood offers some words of praise and a few quick hugs, and then he’s gone, off to the next stop.

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NFPA Conference & Expo, San Antonio, TX, June 17-20, 2019

Reducing Stigma: Applying a Human Performance Optimization Model to Maximize Wellness, Performance, and Recovery
Tuesday, June 18, 2:30–3:30 p.m.

Deloria Wilson, Raul Chapa, Yvonne Garcia, San Antonio Fire Department

Culture, Cancer, and Firefighting PPE 2019: If You Permit It, You Promote It
Tuesday, June 18, 5–6 p.m.

Jim Reidy, San Antonio Fire Department

The 10 Year Retirement Rule (for Firefighting Structural Ensembles): The Science, Philosophy, and Practical Application
Wednesday, June 19, 9:15–10:15 a.m.

Jim Reidy, San Antonio Fire Department

Over two days in March, as I shadow Hood across much of San Antonio, similar scenes play out again and again. We meet with rank-and-file firefighters, captains, chiefs, and civilians; observe live trainings and visit gleaming new gyms and treatment centers; tour a Costco-sized supply warehouse and the hangar-like maintenance facility for the department’s fleet of new trucks and ambulances; and walk through of an assortment of state-of-the-art facilities for dispatch, emergency coordination, interagency communication, and more, all built since Hood took the helm at SAFD 12 years ago.

At each stop, Hood, 59, a tall, burly man with arched eyebrows and a round shaved head, is a whirl of energy and enthusiasm. He seems to know all of the 2,000 employees under his watch, and permanently sports a wide, toothy smile. Personnel from all ranks approach him with big grins of their own, and almost always with a hug. “This is a hugging department,” Hood tells me.

This brand of personal engagement isn’t an optional part of his job, Hood says—it is the job. “It takes energy to be a leader—you can’t sit around and be invisible. I have to talk with and engage every single person I see,” Hood says, looking me in the eye. “Unless you’re investing in the people, nothing gets done. If you invest in people, the people will invest in the fire department.”

To say the philosophy has worked for Hood would be an understatement. Since he took the helm at SAFD in April 2007, the department’s reputation has been transformed from an average outfit to one of the most respected and emulated fire organizations in North America. “If you’re looking for a department on the cutting edge and a chief that embraces innovation, I can’t think of a better example than San Antonio,” says Russ Sanders, executive secretary of the Metro Chiefs, a member section of both NFPA and IAFC that includes chiefs from the nation’s largest cities.

“I can’t speak enough to how our department has progressed over the last 12 years—we’ve progressed by leaps and bounds because of this chief,” says Noel Horan, who has held nearly every rank, including deputy chief, over his four-decade career with the San Antonio Fire Department. “It’s a real exciting time to work here.”

SAFD’s ascension has coincided with a remarkable period for the fire service in general—few professions have evolved as dramatically over the last two generations as that of the modern firefighter. While they still shoot water on fire—albeit in increasingly complex ways, protecting increasingly complex structures—the scope of their responsibilities now includes every conceivable calamity caused by nature and humans, a list that continually grows. The job description can now include rushing into active mass-casualty shootings wearing ballistic vests and helmets to help victims ravaged by high-caliber rifles; pulling hurricane survivors from raging waters; rescuing hikers from crevasses; pumping blood into cardiac-arrest patients at the scene of an accident; reviving opioid overdose victims; and even performing minor surgeries in the back of speeding ambulances. On top of it, much more is now known about the long-term physical and emotional threats that have been silent killers of firefighters for decades—including cancer, post-traumatic stress, and depression—and that have compelled departments to upend centuries of ingrained cultural norms to protect the health of their members.

Perhaps no department leader has navigated these turbulent changes more astutely over the last decade than Hood, earning him a reputation as one of the boldest, most innovative fire service leaders of his generation. San Antonio has been at the forefront, or at least ahead of the curve, on nearly every hot-button issue: firefighter cancer, behavioral health, firefighter safety and wellness, active-shooter preparation, community paramedicine, and more. In recent years, the department has received a Class 1 rating from the Insurance Services Office—a ranking only the top 1 percent of departments nationally receive—and in March received accreditation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, an exhaustive process that includes a full audit of department assets and capabilities, and close observation of its tactics. San Antonio is one of just a handful of fire departments in North America to boast both Class 1 and accreditation distinctions.

Chief hood talks to two firefighters in front of a fire apparatus

TEACHABLE MOMENTS Hood evaluates a training session with members of the San Antonio Fire Department. SAFD's investment in firefighter safety includes a training facility named for a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 2017. Photograph: Jesse Roman

“The worst thing you can possibly do as a fire chief is inaction,” Hood tells me as we sit in his office in a rare moment of stillness. “If you’re just sitting there happy with the status quo, that’s a sign you’re either scared of change or that you’re weak and incapable of change. Those are excuses. Fire chiefs have to take risks.”

HOOD’S OFFICE, located on the second floor of the city’s spacious new public safety headquarters downtown, is like a career scrapbook. The walls are adorned with a few plaques and awards, but most of the real estate is devoted to old photos of fire service colleagues, friends he worked alongside battling blazes and saving lives as a paramedic and firefighter in Phoenix for more than two decades. He surrounds himself with the photos, he says, to remember his humble beginnings as a firefighter, and also as reminders of his responsibility to the men and women in the field risking their lives. “I would define myself as a servant leader,” he tells me. “I always take care of my folks, not enabling them, but taking care of them.”

Hood joined the Phoenix Fire Department in 1984 as a rank-and-file firefighter, despite his military father’s objections that the profession was too blue collar for his son. Hood caught the firefighting bug as a kid; the father of a childhood friend was a firefighter, and the two boys would visit the friend’s dad at the fire station. “I always loved fire trucks, I liked the lifestyle, the whole thing,” Hood says. He held an array of jobs in the Phoenix department: more than 1,000 flight hours as a helicopter air medic; chief of corporate communications; deputy fire chief at one of the country’s busiest airports; and eventually assistant chief to legendary Phoenix fire chief Alan Brunacini, Hood’s longtime friend and mentor who was nationally recognized for his tactical innovations and progressive approach to firefighter safety.

When Hood arrived in San Antonio in April 2007, however, the department bore little resemblance to the culture he’d left in Phoenix. According to multiple SAFD employees I spoke with, as well as longtime city manager Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio was a department in need of an update; its policies, equipment, and facilities were all antiquated. When Sculley was hired as San Antonio’s city manager in 2005, after 16 years as assistant city manager in Phoenix, one of the first press conferences she held was to address the alarming rate at which SAFD’s self-contained breathing apparatuses were failing—on several occasions, while firefighters were battling blazes. “There were some real basics that needed correcting, best practices that I was familiar with from my Phoenix experience that just weren’t happening,” Sculley says.

Before Hood arrived, department morale was low, and city residents often complained about response times to the point where residents in one part of the city told Sculley that they wanted to secede from San Antonio, she says. The fire department had no formal safety or wellness programs for firefighters, and lacked policies for responding to many kinds of low-frequency, high-stakes events, like mass-casualty shootings, that are crucial for modern urban departments. To many members, it felt like the department was stuck in a rut.

“I have worked under four fire chiefs in my career” at SAFD, Horan tells me, “and the difference is, previously, I think we were good, but the status quo was acceptable. There was never discussion, that I was aware, of wanting to be a national leader in the fire service. It was never a topic.”

When the former chief retired in 2006, Sculley launched a national search for a new leader with that very objective in mind. Her previous post in Phoenix had given her a front-row seat to how a modern fire department could operate and, perhaps not surprisingly, Hood was one of two finalists from Phoenix to make it to the last round of interviews.

“Because Charles had grown up in an environment of excellence, I knew he could make the improvements that we needed to get done in San Antonio,” Sculley says. “And when he got here, he hit the deck running.”

HOOD DEVOTED HIS FIRST 100 days in San Antonio to a grueling reconnaissance mission to find out what kind of organization he was dealing with. He spent most days and evenings riding with fire and ambulance crews, closely observing their tactics, but taking care to never interfere unless there was a critical safety or customer service problem. He visited every station, ate meals with firefighters, and sometimes even brought his kids to hang out. “I let the department continue to run, and I just kind of witnessed it from afar,” Hood says. “I also got to know the people and let them know that I'm here, I listen, and I have an open-door policy whenever you want to talk.”

Many took him up on it, says Richard Giusti, an assistant chief at SAFD. “You had people lining up. Every chief, every captain, every lieutenant, a lot of firefighters, and he spoke to them all,” Giusti says. “During those first 100 days here—I would go so far as to say the first two years—I don’t think he got any sleep, to be honest.”

Almost everywhere he turned, Hood saw low-hanging fruit for improving morale and customer service. He gave stations free rein to decide what uniforms firefighters could wear in San Antonio’s subtropical weather, and did away with a longstanding rule prohibiting firefighters from eating out in their communities during shifts. He implemented a program from Phoenix where, after a residential fire, firefighters canvas the neighborhood, passing out smoke alarms and fire-prevention information. To victims, they supplied slippers, clothes, and storage bins for salvaged belongings, and social workers were dispatched to assist in finding them services for housing, financial assistance, and more.

Hood more than quadrupled the medications emergency crews carried, expanding the life-saving treatments that could be administered on scene, and he restructured the city’s overburdened EMS. Paramedics were placed on nearly every fire truck to better distribute the city’s surging medical calls and get medics to the scene faster. “When I got here, about 80 percent of the runs were being made by about 20 percent of our department—we were really beating up our paramedics, and we were running out of ambulances every single day,” Hood says.

Firefighers performing different task at SAFD facilities

RESPONSE FOCUS Clockwise from left: Responders carry whole blood to improve treatment of victims; the city has invested in a sophisticated dispatch system; and EMT supply cabinets have been standardized throughout SAFD facilities. Photographs: SAN ANTONIO FIRE DEPARTMENT; JESSE ROMAN

Hood stressed to all of his officers that safety and worker health were now top organizational priorities. He also made moves to end the stagnation that had seemingly crept into the department, and demanded that his officers find cutting-edge national best practices and tailor them for implementation in San Antonio. Officers say that ideas, innovation, and improvement were soon valued across the leadership. “Everybody was hungry and ready to go, so when this new guy came in and cared what we thought and asked us if we’d do the work to get something done, we were like, ‘Hell yeah, we’ll get this done!’” Giusti says.

“All I have to do is go into one of these offices and say, ‘Hey man, we have to do this.’ I don’t tell them how to do it, I let them go and figure it out,” Hood says. “That’s the beauty of the people I work with. They come up with really good solutions to problems I give them—sometimes things I never expected.”

After more than a decade, that can-do culture has proliferated. The atmosphere at SAFD today resembles an ambitious startup, where the quest for efficiencies is ongoing and ingrained at every level of the organization.

I see evidence of this when Hood takes me to the department’s new supply and logistics center. The center is a Costco-sized warehouse with pallets stacked on shelves 40 feet high, containing every piece of equipment a SAFD firefighter or paramedic could ever need—medications, hoses, skillets, lawnmowers—all ready to be shipped on-demand to any of the 56 firehouses across the city. The manager, Eric McGowin, a former supply manager at a local supermarket chain, pulls Hood aside to show him a pilot program about the launch. He points to a large cabinet with two swinging doors that open to reveal rows of numbered blue plastic bins. Next to it on the warehouse floor sits a gray, 6-foot-tall office cabinet, its four shelves crammed with boxes and bins.

“Most fire stations have this type of medicine locker now,” McGowin tells me, pointing to the gray cabinet. “Imagine one of these with bins just shoved in there, with no uniformity, no standardization, and you have to dig through it at 2 a.m., after you’ve already been up 25 hours straight, trying to find a specific medication.” Then he opens the new cabinet. Each medication is neatly stored in numbered, sliding bins. The cabinets and bin numbers are the same throughout the city, so no matter what station EMS personnel are in, they can quickly find what they’re looking for. “It’s one of those ideas that was intuitive and born out of necessity,” McGowin adds. “If we can find simple things like this that benefit both me and the folks in the field, that’s what we’re going to do.” Hood, who is just now learning about the new lockers, inspects them closely, then nods in approval. “Very cool,” he says.

I ask Hood later why he hadn’t been part of the new locker plan. “I try to fly at about 30,000 feet—I’m strategic,” he says. “If I’m getting down hitting trees and weeds, then I’m way too low and I’m not giving somebody else an opportunity to do their job. I have really good deputies and assistant chiefs and division chiefs, and it’s their job to come up with those efficiencies. I get into the weeds with people, not with systems and processes.”

ANOTHER KEY FACTOR in SAFD’s ascendance, observers say, has been Sculley’s shrewd financial management and prioritization of public safety—aided in part by Hood’s natural gift for political persuasion—which have resulted in significant investments over the last decade in SAFD’s infrastructure. Part of the investment has been out of necessity. In recent years, San Antonio has been one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, adding about 180,000 new residents since 2010, sending the population north of 1.5 million. It is now the seventh-largest city in the US, and sprawls across almost 500 square miles.

Apart from keeping up with growth and the increased demand that comes with it, city leaders envisioned a fire department that could do even more, and they have been willing to pay for it. Since Hood arrived, the department’s budget has doubled, to roughly $330 million annually. SAFD has added more than 260 uniformed personnel; launched six new EMS units and seven engine, platform, and ladder companies; and established new departmental divisions for safety, planning and analytics, and incumbent training. The influx of resources has also helped the department launch an array of innovative programs, such as its mobile integrated health program, which has dramatically slashed the number of 911 calls, improved health outcomes for patients, and reduced stress on responders. The department also recently piloted a first-in-the-nation whole-blood program, which allows paramedics to administer life-saving blood to victims at the scene of accidents. Department leaders say the whole-blood transfusions have already saved lives, including a woman last January who went into traumatic cardiac arrest from severe blood loss after a car accident. Saving someone in that state is almost unheard of, SAFD paramedics told me.

More than anything else, however, SAFD has invested heavily in the health and wellness of its own members. It has closed outdated stations and spent millions to clean up existing stations. It has also built state-of-the-art fire houses that keep cancer-causing contaminants out of living quarters. Each firefighter now has two sets of turnout equipment so that soiled gear can be immediately laundered; fireground decontamination procedures have been ramped up, and cancer awareness campaigns have been launched. The department has established an Office of Health and Wellness, and opened a wellness center, complete with an athletic trainer, saunas, on-staff doctors providing free physicals and checkups, and a fire fitness program. Detailed mandatory classes about important benefits, such as worker’s comp claims and health insurance, have been designed and are taught monthly to battalion chiefs so they can make sure firefighters understand how to use them.

Hood, who in recent years has lost four active firefighters to cancer—all in their 40s—makes no compromises on this front. He sees firefighter wellness and cancer prevention as not only essential for his members, but for the community safety his department provides. For firefighters to deliver the best quality care to customers, he says, they can’t be based in rundown stations or riding outdated apparatus; likewise, they can’t be out of shape, injured, or sick. To this end, he has taken some controversial steps, such as mandating annual physicals for firefighters and requiring that dirty equipment, including SCBA bottles, be carried outside of the truck cab. There’s been some grumbling, but Hood says he doesn’t care. “If I do something, it’s so you can enjoy your retirement and live a long healthy life, and I really don’t feel bad about it,” he says.

SAFD facilities including a locker room, health and wellness room, and training facility

HEALTH AND TRAINING FOCUS Clockwise from right: SAFD firefighters prepare at a training facility that can be configured to present potentially disorienting fire situations; a comprehensive health and wellness program serves the needs of SAFD personnel; and turnout gear is stored away from living quarters in SAFD facilities to minimize exposure to potentially harmful fireground substances, including carcinogens. Photographs: SAN ANTONIO FIRE DEPARTMENT; JESSE ROMAN

Several firefighters told me that, above all, it’s this concern for his employees that has made Hood such an effective, respected leader in San Antonio. It also doesn’t hurt that he is more than willing to lead by example rather than from behind a desk. When his members are fighting a fire, more often than not they see Hood out there, too, no matter the hour, not to pose for the media but to lend support.

“It’s easy to go the extra mile for a chief who we know cares about us and will do the right thing,” Giusti tells me. “That’s a huge morale booster, when you see a chief who is actually a firefighter—not a politician, not a businessperson, but a person.”

WHILE THE TRAJECTORY has been decidedly upward, SAFD has also had its challenges. The city has been embroiled in a very public and acrimonious dispute with the firefighter union over its labor contract since the previous agreement expired in 2014, leaving firefighters without pay increases for four years. The situation has sparked lawsuits, allegations of secret recorded conversations, union-backed city charter amendments, and a bizarre scene where the union president held a press conference wearing a fake fire chief’s uniform. Hood has seemingly managed to stay above the fray, in both the media and with his firefighters, focusing on running the department and letting city officials deal with contracts. “Our management/labor relationship is not that strong, but we get stuff done,” he says.

A low point for Hood and the department took place on May 18, 2017. That evening, an arsonist hoping to collect insurance money set fire to his gym inside a strip mall on the northwest side of the city. Unsure if anyone was trapped inside, firefighters Scott Deem and Brad Phipps entered the structure to conduct a search-and-rescue operation, but became disoriented when high winds escalated the blaze. A mayday was sounded, and rapid-intervention teams were sent to look for the missing firefighters. They returned with Phipps before being called back due to untenable fire conditions. Deem, 31, died at the scene, leaving behind two children and a wife who was six months pregnant.

The Texas State Fire Marshal launched an investigation soon after the incident, concluding that Deem’s death was preventable and identifying 10 mistakes in SAFD’s tactics that contributed to the fatality. Upon receiving the report, Hood insisted that the fire marshal add one more—he believed firefighters freelancing at the scene was a factor that the report omitted. Some city leaders questioned why the fire chief would add to the list of his own department’s mistakes. “I wanted it in there for transparency,” Hood says. “I promised that whatever happened we would learn from it. We owe that to Scott.”

There are reminders of Deem everywhere in SAFD facilities, including a photo outside Hood’s office and a quote on the wall about faith and forgiveness that Deem’s wife said meant a lot to her husband. When I ask Hood about Deem’s death almost two years later, we are seated at the conference table in his office. He speaks low and slow for more than 10 uninterrupted minutes, his eyes well with tears, but his voice never wavers. “It shook us to the core—it plunged a knife into my heart,” he tells me. “In the history of this department, since 1891, we never lost a firefighter in a building and couldn't get them out. And it happened to me, the guy who brought a risk-managed philosophy of fireground safety here.”

Since Deem’s death, the department has redoubled its safety efforts to correct the mistakes and prepare members for similar situations. An old warehouse in an industrial section of the city’s east side has been converted into the Scott Deem Training Facility, where firefighters practice rescuing their own in mayday situations amid heavy simulated smoke and maze-like interiors that can be easily reconfigured. The trainings are run and organized by the officers who were on scene the night Deem died, and each tells me that the responsibility has helped them heal from the tragedy. Several people, including SAFD members and city manager Sculley, have said that the department has grown closer since Deem died, in large part because of Hood’s efforts to preach self-forgiveness across the organization, to heal wounds, and honor Deem’s memory by fixing the mistakes that led to his death.

Hood has to forgive himself, too. “I have to remind myself that good fire chiefs lose firefighters,” he tells me, staring blankly ahead. “Did we intend it? No. Have we done everything we humanly can to make sure it won’t happen again? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it won't. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do professionally.”

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Hood takes me on a short drive around downtown San Antonio in his white Ford Expedition. With the gusto of a tour guide, he points out restaurants, a historic brewery that’s been renovated into an elegant hotel, and places where the city’s famed River Walk was recently extended. Eventually, we turn down a quiet, tree-lined street not far from fire department headquarters, and we slow as we approach our destination.

Hood points to a large, white-cladded building, which he says was once a home for troubled boys. The fire department recently purchased the historic building for $3.5 million and will soon convert it into its new Life Safety Building, housing the department’s growing roster of firefighter wellness, safety, and fire prevention programs. “It’s going to take a couple years to get it done, but we’re going to build something really nice,” Hood says, gazing at the building through the driver’s side window.

Although Hood has shown me a staggering number of new facilities over the last two days, his satisfaction with this project is especially evident as he talks. He envisions an attractive, inviting space where firefighters will be able to exercise, receive medical checkups, visit the athletic trainer and staff psychologist, and relax on the front porch and grassy yard. In some ways, it feels like Hood is showing off a culmination of the vision he’s been preaching since the day he arrived in San Antonio more than a dozen years ago.

“As soon as I got here, I started preaching my philosophy to everyone I saw about taking care of your folks and building relationships with them, and that the most important customer is us, and what my expectations are in terms of how we treat each other,” Hood says proudly as we sit in the idling truck. “It all started with that, and today, if you’re a battalion chief or an officer—anyone who has gotten that far in our organization—you understand the importance of that, and treating people the right way. I’m proud of that and I think there’s no doubt that, when I leave, those pieces will stay ingrained in this culture.”

A moment later, he hits the gas, and we’re off again to the next new project.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: SAN ANTONIO FIRE DEPARTMENT