Alan Benson retired May 2 after 14 years with The Woodlands as fire chief. In that time, he said he has seen the community grow in both its population and in its needs. Before coming to The Woodlands, he spent three years as chief of the Oklahoma City Fire Department and also served as an instructor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Oklahoma State University. During his time with The Woodlands, the department’s Insurance Services Office rating—a measurement designed to measure a department’s capabilities—increased from ISO 3 to ISO 1, the highest rating possible.
How did you become interested in a career in firefighting and where did you begin your career?
My dad was a firefighter. … The year he got on the fire department of Oklahoma City was the year I was born, and when I started going to college, he said, ‘Don’t be a firefighter.’ I did … opt to be a firefighter in Oklahoma City and took that position, and ironically my dad died the year I got on the fire department. I wanted to do more than just be a firefighter, so from day one my focus was on being a fire chief.
What was the most challenging incident or event that your department responded to during your time as chief?
I think that the most significant incident for us … was Hurricane Ike. Even though we’re 80-plus miles away from the coast, certainly hurricanes such as that can significantly affect your community, and that was obviously what happened in The Woodlands, because we had so many trees down. We did not have so much flooding as we did in Hurricane Harvey, but I think the benefit from that was the organizational aspect. How, for example, are we going to be able to go systematically throughout The Woodlands and be sure that our citizens are safe, and no one is trapped. Strategically, I think we learned a lot of different things from that and were able to respond to Hurricane Harvey and other floods in Creekside [Forest], so from an incident standoint that was certainly the most significant I faced in the 14-plus year here.
I think the term fire department is a misnomer because we are an emergency response organization, and we respond to everything. If you’re in doubt, you call the fire department, and we respond to everything that doesn’t relate to crime.
What do you feel were the most significant accomplishments of your time as chief?
Full-person staffing was significant, and also that brought us the ability … to progress from an ISO 3 [rating]to an ISO 1 department. Certainly not many departments ever accomplish that.
What challenges do you see The Woodlands facing in the future in its fire service, and how could incorporation affect the department?
I think [the population is]right now the most in the Town Center or eastern portions of The Woodlands. When you go west of Gosling [Road] we don’t have the concentration of stations there. What is our future going to hold as far as the density of population and commercial development to the west, and being able to manage that to be able to provide the same level of service as we do for all of The Woodlands. As far as incorporation … our community leaders will have to look at the options that we have. Are we going to take over code enforcement as far as life safety code, inspections? Are we going to take over and actually have a fire investigation unit? I think those are the … nuances that will come about when we incorporate, no idea when [that will happen], but we have to look at that.
How was your time as fire chief in The Woodlands different from your other career experiences?
It’s all relative. … I had 1,312 employees in [Oklahoma] City, and I had a very strong support staff. … Then you come down to a department like The Woodlands back in ’05 when I came here, and it’s doubled since I’ve been here. I would normally dole out some of the projects to different people in Oklahoma City and I look around here, and I said, ‘I guess I have to do it.’ I think that’s the difference, is the amount of organizational support … compared to a smaller department.
What would you like people to know about The Woodlands Fire Department that they might not know?
The foundation of The Woodlands Fire Department is that it is all about customer service. … It’s amazing what these men and women do for our citizens, whether it is to help them with the personal items, to take their vehicle to the emergency room, to negate them having to pay for a tow fee. It’s all the little things they do, doing everything they can. And they’re empowered to do it. I was strong about that—if you can help and it’s reasonable, then do it.
What is the threat of fire in The Woodlands?
One of the best things we have going for us in The Woodlands is that we don’t have a lot of fires … [but]that day will come and we’ll begin, even though we have a lot of good codes in place, to protect from fires. Eventually we will have them.