Longtime Stephenville fire chief reflects on career, retirement

LeAnda Staebner
Stephenville Empire-Tribune

Retiring Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew says he started working at age 11 when he had a newspaper route for the Empire-Tribune.

Longtime Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew is pictured on the scene of an incident in this file photo. Chew is retiring after serving for 50 years with the department. His last day is Friday.

Now, after several other jobs, including an impressive 50 years with the fire department, Chew's response when asked what he was going to do in retirement was simple: "I don't know," he said with a chuckle.

A retirement event for the longtime chief is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at the City Hall at City Limits, 1907 E. Washington St. Dress is casual (no uniforms, please).

Chew

Those planning to attend are asked to let organizers know at RSVPCHEW@aol.com by the end of the day on Wednesday.

Chew — stating that everyone in Erath County has heard the story — said his career with the fire department started by accident. He said the department recruited him to fill in for another firefighter on a three-month absence and "I just never did leave."

"I actually didn't intend to go into firefighting," he said. "I got into it and found I loved it."

A graduate of Stephenville High School and Tarleton State University, Chew joined the department as a firefighter/EMT in 1970 and worked in that capacity until 1983 when he was promoted to lieutenant/shift leader.

Jimmy Chew, front row, far left, is pictured with some other officials during the early days of his career with the Stephenville Fire Department.

On July 1, 1984, he was promoted to assistant fire chief/EMT/training officer. He served as the interim chief from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2004, being promoted to fire chief on Jan. 1, 2005.

Reflecting on his 50 years with the department, Chew said that the one accomplishment he is most proud of was his part in the investigation and subsequent report on the 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas.

The blast, which occurred on April 17, 2013, was an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people, injured more than 160, and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings in the community, located 18 miles north of Waco.

Chew said the firefighters in that community responded the only way they knew how, but were not equipped and lacked the knowledge to handle a situation of that magnitude.

"(The report) basically changed the way the fire service handles these type of fires. I'm pretty proud of that," the chief said.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew, seated on desk, is pictured during a classroom visit to a local school.

Although first responders face situations daily and at a moment's notice that may put them in harm's way, the chief said he couldn't recall a time he felt fear for himself.

"I was there doing my job," he said. "I never felt fear for myself. You mostly remember things that put pressure on you. That's the kind of things I remember."

He did recall a time when he felt fearful for the lives of his personnel and that was during the PK Complex fire in 2011.

Chew was serving as operations chief and said he had some hard decisions to make.

He said the fire, which destroyed 169 homes, had only one way in and one way out to where they were battling the blaze. He had to make the decision of whether or not to send personnel.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew is pictured on the scene of an incident in this file photo.

"The guys wanted to go out and fight, so I said 'we'll put one truck out there. If they can't get it out in five minutes, we'll pull them out,'" Chew said, adding that the crew was able to get enough of the fire under control to be able to stay and continue fighting.

Despite the stresses that come with the job, Chew said he never questioned his decision to stay with the fire department, adding that there are some aspects of the job that aren't as "exciting" as firefighting itself, such as budgeting and other administrative duties.

"Most people say they have to go to work. I get to come to work every day," he said.

Chew has received many awards and honors over the years including serving with the Texas Fire Chief's Association on the board of directors from 2012 to present, and also as the president in 2015.

He was named Texas Fire Chief of the Year in 2017 by the Texas Fire Chiefs Association.

Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew, left, was named Fire Chief of the Year by the Texas Fire Chiefs Association. He is pictured with Mike Wisko, president of the organization, following the award ceremony in this January 2017 file photo.

In addition, Chew has served on numerous boards and committees in the community over the years including Relay for Life, Stephenville Chamber of Commerce, Erath County American Cancer Society Board, Erath County United Way, Stephenville Optimist Club, Stephenville Athletic Booster Club, Tarleton Alumni Association, Stephenville Bass Club and Lone Star Frontier Shooting Club to name several.

Some of his community involvements give a clue to several of Chew's favorite pastimes including fishing, cowboy action shooting and golf, which he said he plans to do more of now that he has the free time.

The chief added that he and his wife, Betty, have a place near Fredericksburg that they plan to spend some time at before returning home to Stephenville and tackling several projects.

In announcing his retirement earlier this month at a city council meeting, Chew closed his comments by thanking his "best friend and wife, Betty," who he said never complained when plans changed at the last minute or when he arrived home later than planned.

"She was always there with encouraging words and good advice when I needed it," he said.

Chew said spending time with his children and four grandchildren are also on the list of retirement activities.

In closing, the chief expressed his gratitude to the citizens of Stephenville.

"I'd just like to thank the citizens of Stephenville for giving me the opportunity to serve," he said. "It's been the best job anyone could ever have."