‘It’s been a heck of a ride.’ Jimmy Chew begins his final week as the city’s fire chief.
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
After a quick 50 years, Stephenville Fire Chief Jimmy Chew will walk out of his office and into retirement on Friday in what will no doubt be a bittersweet moment.
I sat down with Chew inside his office at the fire station to talk about the big life change that’s looming ahead. I’ve interviewed Chew dozens of times over the years, but this one was different; it was packed with emotion.
Since announcing his retirement earlier this month, Chew said he has received dozens of calls.
“I have developed a lot of friendships throughout the state and I have received dozens of calls from fire chiefs and others I’ve worked with over the years,” Chew said.
When his retirement officially gets underway on July 31, Chew and his wife Betty will head to Fredericksburg for a month or two “to unwind and relax.”
“I am into cowboy action shooting and I will spend more time practicing that,” Chew told Beneath the Surface News. “And I love to hunt and fish.”
And while a little fun is no doubt in store, Chew said he will remain connected to the world of firefighting where he has spent his entire career.
Chew is part of the West Central Texas Incident Management Team that includes eight throughout Texas. Each team responds to incidents like hurricanes and other natural disasters.
“I intend to stay active in that and I will probably do some contract work for the Texas Forest Service,” he said.
Chew will also stay on as a member of the Texas Fire Chiefs board of directors through January.
Chew’s retirement from the Stephenville Fire Department is significant for many reasons, but the most obvious, however, is the length of time he has served the department.
Chew began working for the SFD when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at Tarleton State University.
“At that time there were five paid firemen in Stephenville,” Chew said. “One of the guys was going to take a three-month leave of absence and I was asked to fill in for him.
“My dad told me to go ahead and see if I liked it, and after two months, I was hooked. I was only supposed to be here for three months and I have been here for 50 years and 8 months.”
After serving as the assistant fire chief beginning in 1984, Chew was appointed fire chief in 2004, and the rest, they say, is history.
“The beauty of my job is that I get to come to work,” he said. “A lot of people have to go to work, but I’ve been fortunate.”
THE WEST FERTILIZER EXPLOSION
I knew that asking Chew to recall special or poignant moments throughout his careers would be a lot, so I asked him to tell me about one incident that shaped his career.
He didn’t hesitate to answer.
“The West fertilizer explosion,” he said. “That’s the biggest accomplishment in my mind.”
Chew was a member of the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is charged with investigating incidents involving firefighters killed in the line of duty, when the West tragedy occurred in 2013.
The explosion claimed the lives of 15 people including 10 first responders.
“Our job was to go in and look at the tactics that the firefighters used,” he said. “It’s never to set blame; it’s meant to improve tactics and the response so something like that never happens again.”
Chew and four other fire chiefs from across the state were called to investigate the explosion.
After spending nearly a year interviewing witnesses and piecing together what happened, the group issued its final report.
“The day before that explosion, 85 to 90 percent of the fire departments in Texas would have done exactly what the West Volunteer Fire Department did that day,” Chew said. “When they were called, they thought they were responding to a structure fire, but when they got there, they found themselves – too late – in the middle of a hazmat incident.”
The findings of that investigation changed the way fertilizer plants report and improved training and response for firefighters.
“It changed our understanding of how something like that could happen,” he said.
AN EMOTIONAL GOODBYE
Walking out of the fire department for the last time as chief on Friday, won’t be easy.
Much of Chew’s identity is wrapped up as the city’s fire chief and letting that go will take some getting used to, he said.
“I have thought about that final moment a lot,” Chew said. “The biggest thing I am worried about is that I won’t be chief anymore. None of my kids know me as anything but a firefighter. My daughter is my oldest child and I became a firefighter when she was nine months old. Everyone knows me as the chief.”
Chew said he has no doubt the fire department will continue operating well under new leadership, but he will miss the camaraderie.
“I’m going to miss being a part of that, but I am going to do my dead level best to stay in touch and keep the connections,” he said.
“I want to thank everyone in the world, especially the people of Stephenville, for the opportunity to work here and serve this city. I’m overwhelmed to have been able to spend my entire career doing what I love and be recognized for it.
"It’s been a heck of a ride.”