Ben Blanton, the Red Oak Deputy Fire Chief, has 20 years of experience as a firefighter and also serves as arson investigator and fire marshal. The Daily Light continues its weekly “Behind the Badge” series, to be published each Sunday, in an effort to get to know the officers that serve and protect us on a daily basis.
If you don’t mind, give me a little background information on how you got into firefighting.
I grew up in here in Red Oak, and started out as a volunteer fireman back in 1995, when we were just a volunteer department. In 1996, I wrapped up my fire academy training at Kilgore College, then finished EMT training and paramedic training in 1997.
Things have changed since then, but back in the day, when you graduated from the fire academy, you had one year to find a job. If you didn’t find a job within that one year, you had to go back to the fire academy. So my year after graduating from the fire academy was coming up quickly, and I had to find a job. I moved to Atlanta, Texas and went to work for them for a year. They were a great department, but I wanted to get a little closer to home, so I started testing back here in the metroplex, and went to work for the Rowlett fire department in 1998.
I don’t remember what the population of Rowlett was back then, but I know it was just a fraction of what it is now. I worked in Rowlett for 16 years.
How did you make that transition from a firefighter to a fire marshal?
After my daughter was born, you sort of do a reality check, and I began to wonder how I could provide for my family if I were to get hurt. While I was at Rowlett, I was constantly trying to improve myself, and worked at taking a lot of certification courses. I just wanted to have that broad range of knowledge, and knew one day it would be beneficial. I had always had an interest in the fire code and the enforcement end of it, because I knew if we did a good job on the front end, on the prevention side of the business, it would ultimately save lives and property down the road.
So in 2008, I decided I would go to the police academy and fire investigators school. I was still doing shift work in Rowlett, but started to go out on some investigation work. So on my days off or if we were called out late at night, I would take advantage of every opportunity to get that experience on the investigative side of fire safety. I also wrapped up my associate degree, and had an opportunity to come back home to Red Oak in 2014, and have been here ever since.
OK. This may be a dumb question, but tell me why you would need that police academy component or experience to be a fire marshal?
Well, it’s not as complicated as you would think. In the state of Texas, you can be a fire investigator and not be a police officer. So as a fire investigator, you can investigate that fire up and until you think arson or some other crime may have been committed. Without that police academy or arson investigator component, you would have to stop your investigation at that point. You wouldn’t be authorized to go any farther. As a fire marshal and arson investigator, you would be able to continue the investigation. That might include interrogating or questioning suspects, filing charges, or making an arrest. So simply put, as a fire marshal or arson investigator, you’re able to investigate a fire from beginning to end.
Having essentially two responsibilities. One as a deputy fire chief and the other as a fire marshal, which one is tougher?
They both have their challenges. As the deputy chief, you’re always managing personnel, making sure everyone has the appropriate amount of training. Firefighters are a tight knit family, simply because we depend on each other in life threatening situations, so the day to day management of personnel, equipment and training can be complicated.
On the fire investigation side, the state of Texas has a set of guidelines and procedures you have to go through. You have to follow those guidelines and rules to the letter, and if you don’t, there’s the very real possibility that you could lose the case.
Red Oak, of course, like a lot of the communities in Ellis County, is growing rapidly. What’s the most difficult part about keeping pace with that growth?
I think just the simple task of trying to keep up with new structure growth as well as managing existing businesses is challenging. Not only do we look at buildings during the planning and construction stage, be we also investigate those buildings annually. So with just one person wearing all of those hats, it’s difficult to get out there and make sure that those businesses that went in last year or ten years ago still have their fire extinguishers up to date and exit signs in place and making sure all of those life safety issues are properly addressed. I’m fortunate enough here that we have three captains, and they will come in when they aren’t on shift or put in just a few hours here and there to help with those inspections. We’re blessed with a great fire department, and I love it here. This is my home. Just getting out and being able to visit with business owners in the community and finding out how we can help them makes all the difference in the world.