MEET: JOHN “CHILI” CHILDERS – HFD’s longest-serving active Firefighter
By Tom McDonald, President, Houston Fire Museum, Inc.
The Vitals – HFD Firefighter John Childers
1955 – Born in Houston
1974 – Graduated J Frank Dobie High School
Reported to HFD Fire Academy for four months of training
Assigned to Fire Station 55 (former “C” shift)
1976 – Transferred to Fire Station 46 (former “C” shift)
1985 – Transferred to Fire Station 7 (former “C” shift and still works on its successor “A” shift today)
2017 – Age 62 with 43 years of service and still fighting fires at Station 7
Back in 1974, when John Childers reported as a rookie firefighter to Station 55, MLK Boulevard was called Southpark; hydrants were “caught” with “two-and-a-half” (inch hose); a “tour” meant working three day shifts (06:30-15:30) followed by three night shifts (15:30-06:30) then having just three days and nights off before repeating; there were officers called “Junior” Captains; and there was just one “Sling-Pack” on an engine (a forerunner to modern air-packs).
“And that went to the rookie…me,” said “Chili” in an interview held in early July. “The Sling-Pack would stay in a suitcase on the pumper until we got to the fire. I was supposed to put it on and then stand at the front door and pull hose for the other guys as they went inside without any air-packs. It seemed kind of backwards, but that’s how they did it.”
Today, more than four decades later, Firefighter Childers still reports to work at 06:30, but for the past 32 years to Station 7 where the hydrants are now caught with 5-inch diameter hose; a tour is one 24-hour shift on-duty followed by a day off then another 24-hour of duty followed by five days off; he has a Captain and a Senior Captain; and everyone is assigned an air-pack (and must have it donned for a fire every time the engine rolls to one).
No doubt, John Childers has seen many big changes over his time in HFD; yet he still loves the work. “I think I’m going to try to get my full thirteen (years) in the DROP,” a milestone he will reach in the year 2020 at age 65 and with 46 years of service.
The HFD’s longest-serving active Firefighter (by rank) currently has ten years in the DROP, which is an acronym for a retirement savings plan offered through the firefighters’ pension system. In it, a classified member of HFD can retire “on paper” yet keep working for up to thirteen more years while his pension checks build up tax-deferred in his DROP account, earning additionally up to 7% annually, also tax-deferred.
“DROP talk” goes on in firehouses across the city every day on every shift and has for years, but finding someone like Chili who has accrued more than thirty years of “pension-eligible” service AND more than ten years in the DROP is a rarity.
As amazing a stint of service that is, what makes Chili’s career so special is that he has done ALL of that time as a front-line firefighter at some of Houston’s busiest fire stations, a feat unmatched in at least the HFD’s modern history. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a firefighter in any big-city fire department in this country who has done what John has for more than four decades.
Each Houston firefighting crew, like in most fire departments across the US, has at least four members – an officer, a driver, and two firefighters. At a fire, the officer supervises, the driver operates the truck, and the firefighters perform the tasks. Typically, those firefighters are young and early in their career because the tasks usually demand significant physical strength and the endurance to work in heavy gear amid blinding smoke and high heat; but Chili has kept up with all of them for nearly half-a-century.
Currently, there are only two classified members of any rank or assignment who have more time in HFD than Chili. EMS Captain Howard Shaw is the “dean” with more than 45 years of service yet Inspector George Hernandez is less than four months behind him. Then there’s Chili.
“My dad Estus worked for Owens-Corning but wanted me to be a DPS officer,” Chili recalled. “I wanted to be a steelworker, though.” He often accompanied his father on insulation jobs downtown where he admired the steelworkers walking the beams of high-rises under construction.
“I ended up joining the fire department, instead, so fear of heights was never a problem for me.” Chili earned all of his high school credits for graduation months before the diploma ceremony, so he was able to start the process to join HFD before his official graduation.
His first day in the fire academy was June 24, 1974, and he reported to instructors District Chief Frank Patronella and Senior Captain K. C. Watkins. After four months, Chili received his badge and his first assignment at Station 55 on Cullen Blvd. – a firehouse with an engine, a ladder truck, and a chief’s car.
Within a couple of years, new Station 46 opened on Corder and Scott Streets, relocated from dilapidated old quarters on nearby Corinth Street. Chili easily transferred on the same shift to the new station as it was in the same district as “55’s.” He spent nine years at “46’s;” and it was there that he was anointed with his nickname. “Another firefighter named (Bricey) Childress gave me the name ‘Chili’ since our two last names sounded too close to the same.”
“I lost it for a while when I transferred to Station 7, but picked it back up again after we made a fire with my old crew from Station 46 one day and they all called me ‘Chili.’ So, the guys at 7’s started calling me that, too.” Chili was known for being an aggressive firefighter, so much so that a captain at a nearby station chose him to test a new firefighting hood that he had designed.
“Clifford Reed had transferred to Station 25 which was just up Scott from our station.” The now-famous “Reed hood” was in its prototype stage (literally assembled by the captain’s mother), and Chili was the only firefighter from Station 46 who Reed chose to test one.
In the interview over breakfast at “Harry’s” in Midtown, John scarfed down a stack of pancakes slathered in syrup, which prompted the question: How do you stay fit? “I used to run three or four miles a day,” he said. “But now I walk about 2 miles instead and work out with weights at least twice a week.”
At 62, John Childers still exudes youthful energy, his only visible evidence of aging being his bangs streaked with gray. He possesses a kind yet self-assured personality that makes you believe he can finish out his career just the way he wants to, although he acknowledges freely that he’s not the same physically as when he was a 19-year-old rookie. With an unprecedented amount of firefighting experience behind him, Chili probably knows better than anyone else what he’s doing. “The only real advantage I have over the young guys is that I’ve learned over the years how to conserve my energy.”
Web editor’s note: This article is the first in what will be a quarterly feature highlighting the service stories of Houston-area firefighters. As the museum serves all of the metro area, we will take suggestions on firefighters to profile from any fire department in the area.