Warren Hangs Up His Chief's Hat

After 31 years with the fire department, Gary Warren looks back to his roots

After 31 years with the Austin Fire Department, including seven years at its leader, Chief Gary Warren announced last week that he will resign his position, effective April 4. Warren initially penned a letter to City Manager Toby Futrell simply to let her know that he had begun "looking around" for other job opportunities – in case someone called in reference to his résumé, he said – then officially posted his intention to resign in order to give the city something "a little more definite, for planning purposes," he said. "So, it didn't start out that way," he said. "What that means is that I don't have anywhere to go yet."

In his three decades with the department, Warren worked his way up through the ranks before being chosen chief in 1997. While Warren doesn't have a new job lined up, he said he would like to end up at a smaller department somewhere in Central Texas where he can get back to some real "hands-on" leadership. "I'd like to find a department that would allow me to be a little more personally involved," he said. "I'm looking for something a little smaller where I can get involved and make a few calls again."

Since 1973, when Warren signed on, the department has grown from 19 to 43 stations, eight of which have been created since he took over at the helm. "Back then it was a lot easier for people to know each other," he said. But now, he said, "there are parts of the [AFD] family that I don't even know."

Warren said that he's proud of the advancements the department has made under his leadership, especially those related to on-the-job safety – such as instituting annual physical and medical assessments, creating the shift safety chief role at each station, and increasing the number of firefighters on the first units responding to service calls. "I wanted to make the job a little better for the 1,000 firefighters we have now," he said.

Warren said the biggest challenge of his tenure has been in recruiting and hiring minority and women firefighters. "It's really been hard to do," he said. "I think the impression people have is that we're really just a bunch of guys – and, for that matter, a bunch of white guys." Others, of course, identify other rough spots in Warren's tenure as chief. The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters last year delivered a resounding vote of no confidence in the chief – a symbolic gesture prompted by Warren's proposal (at the instruction of Futrell and her team) to cut AFD costs by downsizing crews at certain central-city and suburban fire stations.

In the midst of the fracas, lingering – though unsubstantiated – charges of unethical conduct amid AFD's top ranks, including favoritism in disciplinary decisions, were bandied about, but without apparent effect; Futrell announced after the AAPFF vote that "there's only one vote of confidence [in Warren] that matters, and it's mine." Last week, as news of Warren's decision to resign became public, AAPFF President Mike Martinez struck a conciliatory stance, telling the Statesman, "Chief Warren served to the best of his ability for 31 years, and I think he should be commended for that."

Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said the city is still in the process of designing a plan for selecting a new chief, which will include looking both inside and outside the department for the next leader. "Our goal is to hire the very best person," he said. "We've not looked into hiring within, but we're not going to ignore that either. We're going to look at all options and see where we find the best fit for Austin."

Meanwhile, Warren said he's looking forward to getting back to his fire-fighting roots – leading the AFD, he said, has left little time to actually get out on fire calls. "Now, you can hardly tell that I'm a firefighter," he said. The AFD "is one of the best departments in the whole nation; I can't say enough about how much I've enjoyed the work."

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Austin Fire Department, Gary Warren, AFD, Rudy Garza, Toby Futrell, AAPFF, Mike Martinez

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