By Steven Alford
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — In the 100 days since being named Corpus Christi's newest fire chief, Robert Rocha has worked with the speed of a five-alarm fire.
He secured funding for 30 new firefighter jobs, brought together the Nueces County Fire Chiefs Association and worked amid a more than yearlong dispute regarding firefighter contracts - all while trying to meet every employee, at every station, on every shift.
The chief's 100-day review came up recently before city staff, a chance to reflect on what has been accomplished and what still lies ahead.
Looking back, Rocha said he couldn't be happier having made the move from Kansas City, Kan.
"As long as this city wants me here, this is where I want to be," he said.
For him, a typical day begins before dawn.
Rocha wakes and checks his cellphone to see if anything major happened the night before and calls family back home.
"The first thing I think about when I get up in the morning are my family and my firefighters," he said.
He heads to Corpus Christi Cathedral for 7 a.m. mass, an impromptu gathering of business and community members who attend each morning.
Vince Lombardi, one of the winningest coaches in professional football, went to church every morning, Rocha noted. It's a quality he admires in a leader.
From there it's off to work in his third-floor office at the fire administration building on Leopard Street, just down the road from Miller High School and Buc Stadium.
Days are filled with meetings, planning sessions and briefings.
His office is filled with the constant chatter of radio communications, with firefighters and emergency crews responding to and discussing calls throughout the day.
"I'm always listening to the radio," Rocha said looking up from a text message. "I hear how they respond, how they problem-solve."
At a recent meeting of department heads, Rocha led a planning session for the upcoming firefighter's St. Florian Mass on May 4, at the cathedral. Above a dry erase board listing parking plans, ceremony procedures and reception ideas were written the words: Safety, courage, dedication. Each holds a deep meaning to the chief.
For Rocha, who worked more than two decades with the Kansas City Fire Department, the move to Corpus Christi was an easy transition.
Both departments are remarkably similar in size and staff, he said. They both have 22 primary firefighting trucks. Kansas City has 18 fire stations; Corpus Christi has 17.
After working for years as an assistant fire chief, Rocha found his dream job last fall as head of a fire department.
The city's name, meaning "body of Christ," sealed the deal, he said.
Corpus Christi's population puts Rocha in an upper echelon of metropolitan fire chiefs. He is quick to say how lucky the city is to have such a large fire department.
"If you were going to break it into categories, this would be like playing in the major leagues," he said.
But Rocha uses that influence to help surrounding fire departments, with Corpus Christi firetrucks often going to smaller cities in the county to assist with large blazes.
A few weeks ago, the Corpus Christi Fire Department sent a ladder truck to an out-of-control warehouse fire in Alice.
Without the large ladder's ability to place a hose directly over the flames, Alice firefighters would have had to cut their way into the building to reach the fire, Rocha said.
The department also has taken the lead on reconvening the Nueces County Fire Chief's Association, bringing together area department heads to talk about regional issues. "I want a department that works with and shares with other municipalities," he said. "We're all brothers and sisters in the service."
Someone Rocha has bonded with after moving to Corpus Christi is newly hired Police Chief Floyd D. Simpson, who moved from Dallas this spring.
Both arrived to take over their respective departments, leaving their families behind to finish up school semesters and tie up any loose ends before summer.
The two men bonded because they are both outsiders, Rocha said.
Their closeness will be useful during a major event, like a hurricane, and was helpful when, most recently, the pair oversaw public safety for spring break.
For the first time, city officials watched area roads and spring break crowds on video screens from the city's Emergency Operations Center.
"He has been a key figure in pulling everybody together," Simpson said.
Both men reached a point in their careers where they had hit a ceiling, topped out in rank, but wanted to keep their careers going, Simpson said.
"We both have that passion to help that still burns," he said.
BACK TO BASICS
After relocating, Rocha spent his first night in the city at a fire station. It brought back a lot of memories from early in his career, he said.
In the three months that followed, Rocha visited every fire station at least once during every shift - 17 stations, three shifts each.
He learned a lot from being in the field, he said. The thing he heard most was firefighters wanted more training.
The department since has launched a "back to basics" initiative, increasing firefighter training from 20 hours a year to 20 hours a month.
Firefighters are honing their craft on some of the most basic firefighting skills - laying water lines, ventilating structures and rescuing occupants.
"These are the things our citizens expect us to be the best at," he said.
A GREAT TEAM
Rocha's working with city staff to launch a longterm vehicle replacement plan, bringing newer gear into service sooner.
Admittedly, that takes money, at a time when local governments across the country are cutting back, he said.
As fire chief, Rocha oversees more than 400 firefighters and cadets, nearly 20 civilian employees and an operating budget of about $42 million.
Assistant City Manager Troy Riggs, who oversees public safety, said he and Rocha share many of the same ideas about government and leadership, and praised the fire chief for bringing public safety departments together.
"I don't think the citizens of Corpus Christi see everything that he does each day," Riggs said. "He has done an outstanding job since he's been here."
Riggs praised the working relationship between Rocha and Simpson, noting that often in city government jealousies can exist between chiefs of different departments.
"They rely on each other and work together. It's great to see," Riggs said. "Talk about a good team; We've got a great team right now."
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