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GALLERY — Candidates for Port Arthur fire chief give city their best pitches

Three candidates interviewed Wednesday morning at City Hall for the vacant Port Arthur Fire Chief position.

They included Terry Johnson, Robert Havens and Greg Benson, each looking to fill the opening created with the retirement of longtime chief Larry Richard.

The city announced last week it would interview four candidates, but John Grasso Jr. withdrew his application prior to Wednesday morning.

A final decision could come as soon as this week.

The candidates interviewed before a panel including department directors, subject matter experts, community panel members and City Manager Ron Burton.

The interviews were also live streamed.

Greg Benson

Like the two who interviewed before him, Port Arthur Fire Chief candidate Greg Benson stressed communication.

“I know from certain experiences that certain stakeholders may not have had positive experiences with the fire department in the past,” he said. “I would rely on people to suggest, ‘Maybe you need to go speak with Ms. Soandso…’ and I would do that. I’m not afraid to go out there and take that.”

Benson last worked as a fire chief/emergency management director in Victorville, California.

“One thing I think is, how do we communicate with the organization, with the department? There’s three shifts, people are on duty, then off duty. Keeping everyone aware of what’s going on takes time,” he said, explaining in his previous job he created a weekly document called “Hot Spot” that would summarize the week’s events and be available for all department members to read at their leisure.

Benson, who has a Master of Public Administration and a Bachelor of Science and is currently enrolled as a candidate for Doctor of Education, began his work with the California department in 2018.

Ten years before, it had been dismantled and absorbed through contract work by a neighboring department due to the recession. With the hiring of a new city manager, the decision was made to recreate the Victorville department, for which Benson was recruited to lead.

He said the move drew opposition from several departments, which provided a unique learning experience in conflict. But, he explained, the department was ultimately formed and became successful, bringing in 22,000 calls each year.

When asked about readiness to work in an industry-dependent area, Benson said he had done prior research on the uniqueness of Southeast Texas.

“I’ll just say Victorville was all brown because it was all sand. This is all green. So it’s very different,” he said with a laugh.

Benson also noted certain certifications that would be an asset to a fire chief in Port Arthur.

The firefighter and paramedic has been certified in cyber-security, homeland security, risk assessments in communities and hazardous materials.

Outside of department work, Benson served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in Illinois and California.

While not from the area, he has visited, saying he and his wife went cross-country camping a few years back and stayed at Sea Rim State Park.

In addition, a previous colleague of his is employed with Beaumont Fire Rescue.

Robert Havens

Robert Havens spoke to a familiar crowd Wednesday morning as the current interim fire chief interviewed to make the position permanent.

Havens has spent his 28-year firefighting career with the Port Arthur Fire Department.

He is the only local candidate.

Havens, who was serving as the deputy fire chief when appointed five months ago as interim chief, has earned a Bachelor of Science in Political Science, a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences in Fire and Safety Protection, and is a licensed paramedic. He has also worked in fire-related courses at Lamar University and Lamar Institute of Technology.

Havens said, if selected chief, he would put more effort into EMS training for department members.

“When I came to the fire department, there were only four or five people that had medical training, so that’s something we’ve worked very hard at,” he said. “We save more lives by doing CPR and treating traumatic injuries than ever pulling someone from a burning house.”

Havens said every member of the department has a form of EMS certification. Most have their EMT-Basic, he said, but his goal is to elevate that to a higher level for those who want it.

“I sincerely believe the best way to have the most positive impact on the community is to provide better health care,” he said.

He also spoke on the diversity of the city and the importance of making sure community opportunities, such as CPR training, are available to every resident.

Havens currently serves as the president of the Sabine-Neches Chiefs Association, which he called the oldest mutual-aid organization in the United States.

“It was the first of its kind nationally and has become a model institution for other mutual-aid groups,” he told the group.

Havens was the incident commander during the 2017 German Pellets fire.

“I think there’s a great deal of trust between the employees and myself because they know I’ve been there and done that,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust there; the key is to keep that trust.”

At the end of the panel interview, Havens spoke to his desire to lead his local community.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said. “I’d like to continue doing it. And I’d like to continue doing it for the City of Port Arthur.”

Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson was the first of three finalists to interview Wednesday morning.

Johnson, who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army, currently serves as the Fire Chief, EMS Director and Code Administrator in Junction City, Kansas.

“My first station was Fort Polk, so I’m very familiar with Port Arthur,” he told a panel made of community members.

Johnson was honorably discharged in 1992 and went on to become a volunteer firefighter in North Carolina. He earned an associates degree in Fire Protection Technologies from Wilson Technical Community College; and later a bachelor’s degree in Fire Administration/Fire Science Management from the University of North Carolina.

He served as the first paid fire chief in Charolton County, Georgia, where he was charged with combining five volunteer departments into one.

“I’m looking to slow down a little bit,” he said with a laugh, “but also come to the great city of Port Arthur and help the city move forward.”

Johnson spoke in majority about the importance of the fire department having a good working relationship with the community.

“We have to reach communities and get them to understand we’re there to help them,” he said “We’re there to save lives and property. That’s the core of what we do. If we’ve forgotten that, we’ve got to get back to that. And this is our community.”

The fire chief-hopeful said he lived in Florida for years and is familiar with hurricanes, and also deals with tornadoes at his current job.

When asked why he is willing to leave his current position, Johnson said he’s hitting his stress point by working in multiple management positions.

“I want to concentrate on being a fire chief,” he said. “That’s what I am. I spent my whole life to be a fire chief.”