By Sarah Chacko
Killeen Daily Herald
Since City Manager Connie Green announced his choice for Killeen's fire chief last Tuesday, Jerry Gardner has been planning on moving his life from the coast of Texas to its center.
"It's going to be hard to leave Pasadena," Gardner said of his hometown, where he started his firefighting career about 24 years ago.
Though the council still has to approve Gardner for the position Tuesday, the Hill Country is already growing on Gardner.
"Killeen has an excellent command staff in place," he said. "I'm really excited about joining the team, learning about the department and moving forward."
Born and raised in Pasadena, Gardner, known to friends as "J.D.", attended the University of Houston but left to become a firefighter before graduating – a youthful determination that he "didn't need higher education to go into a burning building."
Gardner has since earned a certification in public management from Sam Houston State University.
He joined the volunteer fire department in 1982, after his interest was literally sparked by helping extinguish a house fire across the street from a family member's home.
Gardner moved up the ranks of the volunteer department – one of the largest for a single municipality in the nation – from district lieutenant captain to assistant chief, all the while working as a firefighter at BP Chemicals, formerly Amoco.
In 2002, he became Pasadena's first paid fire chief, working with nearly 200 volunteer firefighters for the city of about 150,000 residents.
"Twenty-four years later, here we are," he said.
While Pasadena and Killeen have many differences within each community's makeup, the fire departments are similar, he said.
Pasadena is working on a capital improvements program similar to Killeen's – having opened their latest station, the 10th, in 2004.
Gardner also guided the department through its mock ISO study, moving its rating up from a six to a three and then, after challenging some points on the report and being given a second evaluation for them, to a two.
That rating change, similar to Killeen's ratings goal, resulted in a potential average savings of 18.2 percent on residential fire insurance in Pasadena and a 23 percent savings on commercial insurance, Gardner said.
David Benson, Pasadena Mayor John Manlove's executive assistant, said people talk about the ISO rating as if it was all about fire trucks and staff levels. But some of it deals with the water system and public works, he said.
To work at that level, officials have to understand the problem from various sides of the issue and work across departmental lines, which Gardner did, he said.
Looking at Killeen's plate and seeing basically the same course, Gardner said it looked like a great opportunity and a good fit.
"Believe me, I learned a lot," he said.
Johnny Isbell, former Pasadena mayor and owner of Apache Oil Co., said Gardner just wanted to do a good job.
"You're getting a lot of experience there with a guy that can get along with everybody," he said.
Serving the city for 24 years – 12 years as a council member and 12 years as mayor – Isbell said he observed Gardner running a very efficient department and considered him conscientious as a chief.
Gardner's style is certainly not to ruffle any feathers, Isbell said. He will analyze and look at a situation in great depth before making a decision on it, making gradual changes as he sees fit, he said.
"I think he'll want to get his feet on the ground and see what personalities are involved," he said.
Pasadena Fire Marshal David Brannon said he worked practically hand-in-hand with Gardner for the past 15 years.
Aside from the facility and equipment improvements, Gardner helped increase the fire department's membership, he said.
Fire officials in Pasadena make every effort to meet or exceed their goals, Brannon said.
"These are some projects we just decided to undertake," he said. "We work on them relentlessly."
One of the biggest assets that Gardner brought to the city was his ability to manage, Brannon said.
"He doesn't try to micromanage," he said. "He doesn't try and get in the middle of everything."
Brannon said Gardner delegates projects and encourages staff along in completing their responsibilities.
"We're all in this to better the fire department," he said. "With him leaving, it's going to leave a big void in this department."
Benson said the city would put Gardner's track record against anyone's.
"I've found Jerry to be somebody who is very much attuned to the importance of communication and community outreach," he said.
Royce Measures, pastor of the Golden Acres Baptist Church in Pasadena, said he knows Gardner through community functions and in his job as the volunteer police chaplain.
Several members of his congregation are volunteer firefighters, as well as full-time firefighters with the Houston department, Measures said.
"Many of them say they cannot tell any difference from the professional to the volunteer departments," he said. "Some of that invariably has to go to the fact that the chief has been a good leader."
Recently, the assistant fire chief of the Valero chemical plant died. His funeral drew in more than 600 people from the area, and the inside of the church was lined with members of the fire department, he said.
"The fire department has a very high and positive profile in the community," Measures said. "I think Chief Gardner has helped in that regard."
Pasadena is a dangerous area in many ways but it encourages a community closeness, he said.
"There's hardly a family here that doesn't have husbands or sons or brothers or friends that don't work in these plants."
In a city surrounded by the dangers of chemical plants and inclement weather, Benson said Gardner not only educates people about how to be safe but markets the department and the important role that firefighters play.
In that environment, where officials have to react quickly and answer questions to keep the emergency system moving, Gardner prevailed, Benson said.
One of his most vivid recollections of Gardner was when hurricanes hit the city and fires were blazing in the early hours of the morning.
Gardner was in the incident command vehicle, Benson said.
"I told him, I need a hat. And Jerry gives me his hat. Right off his head," he said.
"When you work with good people, like Jerry Gardner, you know they're likely to go eventually. You can't help but be happy for them and proud of them. But at the same time, it's bittersweet."
Contact Sarah Chacko at firstname.lastname@example.org