McALLEN — Fire Chief Ralph Balderas began his firefighting career with the city March 15, 1993, and next week, he’ll be retiring after exactly 27 years of service.
Balderas announced his retirement to the McAllen commission in a Feb. 11 letter, indicating it was the best move for his family’s financial security.
“I turned 55 in December, and usually when we turn 55 here, with our pension, guys usually take off,” Balderas said Tuesday. “There’s a provision in our pensions that we get a lump sum after the age of 55, and it encourages people to move on out. But I waited till March to make it an even 27 (years).”
Balderas worked his way through the ranks, until finally becoming chief about 7-and-a-half years ago.
“I came in at the bottom. I came in as a cadet,” he said. “I went through the academy here at the fire department, and throughout the years, I worked my way up and became chief.”
Under his direction, the McAllen Fire Department won a nationwide contest: Good Morning America’s 5-Alarm Firefighters Challenge. The 2-minute video, set to the “Safe and Sound” track by Capital Cities, earned the department a $10,000 prize and a ticket to New York City to appear on the ABC morning show.
“We’ve also improved labor management relations,” he said. “I know that the prior chief had issues with the union — of course he wasn’t from in-house — so I was able to make that work, knowing our guys.”
The department also built its own dispatch center and reconstructed Fire Station No. 2 and No. 3.
“And I guess the biggest accomplishment is our ISO rating,” he said about the Insurance Services Office rate that determines how much insurance costs. “It’s at an all-time low. It improved from a 4 to a 2 — with 1 being the best.”
Balderas said he’s ready to enjoy retirement.
“We’re going to take it easy and do some traveling,” he said about his wife.
The chief is also confident the department will be in good hands once he officially retires March 15.
On Monday, McAllen commissioners appointed Assistant Chief Jim Schultz as interim chief.
“We both came in on the same day,” Balderas said about Schultz. “We were cadets at the same time and we both had the same track.”
Schultz said he hopes to model his leadership style to Balderas.’
“It’s been a great 7-and-a-half years with Chief Balderas at the helm. He’s done a lot for the department and moved us forward to better serve the citizens of McAllen,” Schultz said. “I know that especially as a fire chief, you have to have a hard front, but I know that he deeply cares about our firefighters and the people we serve — truly a servant leader.”
Schultz said he plans to apply for the permanent post.
“Lord willing, that’s in my future and that’s what I’m hoping for,” he said. “I still got a number of years ahead of me.”
Balderas said he remains thankful to those who believed in him.
“I thank the mayor and the commission that was in place back in 2012 for having the faith and confidence in me and giving a hometown boy an opportunity,” he said.
And as far as the services the department offers, well not much will change.
“Even though there’s going to be a change, the service we provide will continue to be top notch and the best in the region,” Schultz said.
“I leave you with the best fire department in the region,” Balderas concluded.