It was around his junior or senior year of high school that Jim Davis decided he might want to be a firefighter.
“I played sports, played baseball specifically. I remember I hated English class. I went to a Catholic high school and I’d sit in English class and be like, ‘Oh my gosh. I just want to get out on the ball field.’ I’d see the fire truck go up and down the street. I’d be like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
So that’s what he did. And that aversion to education?
Didn’t last long.
“I just couldn’t wait to get out of school. Then I got out and I started going back to school as an adult.
“Now I can’t get enough of it. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner now. Now what I want to do here is I want to push myself to be a thought leader,” Davis said.
Davis began taking classes right out of high school to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a firefighter. He started in the private ambulance industry, got hired part time by a suburban fire department in central Ohio and then started working full time for different fire departments and different EMS agencies throughout central Ohio.
Davis started in Columbus in 1988 and spent 30 years there before being tapped last July to head the Fort Worth Fire Department. He was sworn in at the Fort Worth City Council meeting on Oct. 16, becoming only the 14th chief to lead the department in 125 years.
Davis had recently been named assistant fire chief in Columbus, slightly larger than Fort Worth’s, when he was selected to succeed Fort Worth Fire Chief Rudy Jackson. Jackson joined the fire department in 1982 after graduating from Everman High School. He was named chief in March of 2007.
Davis collects degrees and certifications.
He went back to school to become a registered nurse and then a paramedic.
Davis earned a bachelor’s degree from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, a master’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University, an MBA in operational excellence from The Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University and a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education Chief Learning Officer program.
“Jim has hit the ground running by visiting fire stations, getting involved in our community and meeting with city leadership and departments,” Mayor Betsy Price said in October. “Given his strong background in public health and community engagement, I am confident Jim will be a great leader for our world-class fire department and play an instrumental role in moving the city’s mission forward.”
Davis’s wife, Kim, is a nurse with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Columbus and is remaining there for the time being. They have two grown daughters, Charissa Salerno, who works in human resources at Bath & Body Works, and Jordyn Davis, who is a registered nurse in labor and delivery in Columbus. And there are four grandkids between the two of them.
“So I travel back and forth a couple of weekends a month to catch up and make sure that I don’t miss those kids growing up because I don’t want to do that,” Davis said.
Fort Worth Business Press editors Robert Francis and Paul K. Harral visited with Davis recently. What follows is a lightly edited version of that interview:
Were you just looking for a change of scenery or did you think that this was a better opportunity?
I was an assistant fire chief in Columbus when I retired, left there and had the opportunity to come here. I could have stayed there, I would have been very happy in the community. It’s a great place to work, it was a great place to live and raise a family.
However, as I continue my education, I looked at different opportunities for stretch experiences for myself to challenge myself to do something and push myself to do something different and reinvent the way I approach things. I could not think of a better opportunity when Fort Worth came calling and I started exploring the city and the community here and the fire department here.
How would you describe your management style?
I like to think of myself as being very inclusive. My three favorite questions are why, what if, and so what? They’re three very simple questions, but they make a lot of people really uncomfortable. Why do we do what we do? What if we did something different, and so what? Does it make a difference?
I’m not looking to make changes to make change, but I love to ask why and I love to make people think about making sure that we identify the problem correctly because the fire department leadership is there simply to support the mission of the folks who are responding to the public’s emergencies and requests for help on the street, and yet provide a direction for what the future of that organization looks to.
I definitely don’t come through the door with all the answers, but I like to think I know the questions to ask. I don’t ask those questions to trick people. … I believe that we’re very good emergency problem solvers. If your house is on fire, your kid’s trapped in a car, your loved one isn’t breathing, we are very good about aggressively taking care of that problem.
That aggressive, Type A personality works well in that situation. Where we frequently get ourselves in trouble as a profession is when we use emergency problem-solving techniques in non-emergency situations, and most of what management does, myself and my staff, the majority of it are non-emergency situations. This person’s not able to get to work on time. This person has this issue, this person has that issue. We don’t need to respond to it like it’s a house fire, right? So, trying to teach people to step back and to think more from the balcony instead of charging through the front door with a charged hose line approach.
To observers from afar, the Fort Worth Fire Department seems to be pretty good at what it does. Is that accurate?
I think it’s very accurate. I have been overwhelmed and very humbled by the way I’ve been received by the organization and by the city as a whole. I think that the members of the fire department are eager and interested in making an influence in the community in which they work and they’re employed by.
From everything that I’ve seen so far there’s a lot of selflessness in the way that they approach business. I see them changing tires on cars on the freeway at auto accidents. Driving people’s cars who are sick in the middle of the road. Instead of having their car towed somewhere to an impound lot they help them get it off of the road and secure it.
They do a lot of things that are above and beyond what you would normally expect of a firetruck when they show up at a run. They appear to be very genuine in their approach to the way they do business here. I’m just really excited to be a part of it and see if I can push them to the next level.
How about maintaining staffing levels?
The very first day or second day that I was here, I went to a city gathering for employee recognition, a guy who was here 40 years. I met a guy who’s in his 44th year, a battalion chief, the other day. To be honest, there is turnover annually but it’s generally due to retirement after 35 years of employment here.
This year, we’re on pace to lose 35 or 40 people, but it’s all primarily due to retirement. We don’t have a lot of people who are leaving to go to other places to work. My goal is to keep it that way.
It takes us about eight, maybe nine, months to onboard somebody once we get them in as a brand-new fresh recruit, put them through fire school, EMS school, to get them up to the state required certification level. … And at the same time, we have people retiring.
We just started a recruit class of 35 and we will graduate a recruit class Dec. 21 of, I want to say 25, but we’ve already been outpaced by retirements this year. We’ve lost more than 25, so trying to keep our head above water on attrition rate is a challenge. We’ve been looking at it and I look forward to working with the city manager’s office to try to balance that out and make sure that we don’t slip below the waterline.
Note: Calendar year 2017 turnover for civil service fire employees (including retirements) was 3 percent; turnover for civil service fire employees excluding retirements was 0.6 percent.
Are you having trouble getting young people, or maybe just new people, to come into the fire academy?
No. We do not struggle with attracting candidates that want to take the test for employment. Where we do struggle is making sure that we’re attracting a diverse group of candidates who reflect the community we serve. We have a lot of challenge with that and the City of Fort Worth is not any different than any other city in the United States, especially where fire is concerned, in attracting inclusiveness in the community.
It’s on everybody’s radar screen to try to make sure that we are approaching that from an aggressive standpoint, but there’s not a textbook on how to do it and so it’s really getting out and doing grassroots in the schools and in the community and at the college level and places where you can sell your message that this is a great career. It’s a very noble calling and there is no greater honor than when the people in the community trust you with their belongings, their homes, their valuables and their family. It’s a big responsibility.
These firefighters and these paramedics and emergency medical technicians have a vast amount of education and the city provides them with amazing equipment to do their jobs and to stay safe. Overall, it’s a relatively safe profession, even though we work in a very dynamic, changing, unsafe environment. These guys and girls that do this are some of the best in the business. We need to do a better message of: It’s not dangerously, horribly unsafe on a day-in and day-out basis that make people go and shy away from it.
What’s the budget for the fire department?
Pushing $150 million for next budget year. From my assessment, it looks like it’s been growing about 3 percent a year. The vast majority of that is benefits and salaries for folks. About 4, maybe 5 percent of that is discretionary money, which gives us the opportunity to advance equipment and technology. We’re very good about working hard to stay within the budget. We’re very good about seeking out grant funding and things like that to advance the capabilities of the fire department.
The challenges that come with that are when you get a grant, you’ve got to figure out a way to sustain the grant when the grant runs out, and so, especially if the grant involves personnel or high-dollar, high-ticket items, the maintenance and the ongoing costs associated with that have to be budgeted for.
Right now, I think the taxpayers of this community should be very satisfied with the way that their entrusted tax dollars to the fire department are being managed. There’s not a lot of waste and overhead that I’m seeing so far 10 weeks into it.
How about the stress of the job?
I think the first thing that we need to do to deal with it is recognize that it’s real, that it can be cumulative as well as a one-time single event. I think that it’s important to realize that for the first time in the history of the United States firefighter suicides outpaced firefighter line-of-duty deaths from structure fires.
It used to very much be the general rule that a 24-on schedule with 48 hours off gave a lot of time for you to have a second job, second career, to volunteer and coach your kid’s basketball team and stuff like that. … There are a third or more of the fire companies in the city of Fort Worth that are taking more than 5,000, 4,500 runs a year, so when you start looking at the run volume that these folks are taking now, they spend the vast majority of that first day off recovering because they’re up (word missing?) hours in that 24-hour period.
The older you get, the more that really takes its toll on you and it takes longer to recover. As the city continues to grow and it takes us longer to onboard people, we have a fair amount of need for people to come back in and work overtime to keep trucks staffed, and so that cumulative fatigue begins to add to cumulative stress and, as a fire chief here, it’s one of the things that I worry about.
So, it becomes harder?
It absolutely does. And then you start looking at some of the other complexity of the profession with cancer and mental health and divorce rates and stuff like that, these are all stresses that are applied to the human fatigue factors. It’s not like it was when I first came on the fire department when I was younger, was starting to have kids of my own. I’d get off work in the morning, I’d go to school, I’d get my education, I’d go home and get my kids from the babysitter, I’d go to basketball practice, I’d go to soccer practice. There’s a lot of these folks that are taking 15, 16, 17 runs a day, day in and day out. I’ve got to do a better job managing that, to be honest with you, to reduce that fatigue level.
We have to own it.
There’re a couple things that the general public would probably just never really understand and that is that firefighters, paramedics do not wish bad things to happen to people. But when they do, they want to be there.
They want to do the job that they’ve worked so hard to train for. So if it’s going to happen, they’re going to jump right in and they’re going to be saddened for the poor experience that the public’s having but they’re also going to be like, “This is what the public pays me to do and this is what I’ve trained so hard to do and I’m good at it. Let me show you I’m good at it.”
There’s a lot of reflection and a lot of debriefing that goes on at the kitchen table of a firehouse post-event. They carry a lot of emotional weight with them when there’s not a good outcome involved in one.
Did my training let me down? Did I recall enough? Did I do the right thing? What if I’d have turned left? If I didn’t turn right, if I’d have turned left in that front door of that house, would I have found that kid in the corner? Those type of things.
So, recognize that these are real struggles that these guys and girls deal with, recognize that we have to have mechanisms in place to not only help them but to be more aggressive with recognizing it.
Sometimes my job is to protect them from themselves and they don’t even realize that.
A lot of chiefs don’t even realize that.