Rene Lopez is ready to take the helm of the Mission Fire Department after 33 years as a career firefighter.
The city named Lopez interim fire chief after Luis Saldaña retired at the end of October. Lopez’s and Saldaña’s career paths have been similar over the past three decades. Lopez was hired to the department in 1981, six months after Saldaña joined the city. Both had volunteered as firemen for two years before taking it on as a career.
And in the 1990s, when the city made the decision to hire its first full-time chief, the decision came down to Saldaña and Lopez. Saldaña got the nod, but Lopez said he never carried any ill will about the incident.
“It was kind of a relief,” Lopez said. “I got to relax a bit, but he had my 100 percent support. I had his back all the past, I think, 17 years at the fire department.”
Their families grew up together and they were neighbors, Lopez said, both living a few doors away from the main fire station.
Lopez’s dad was a volunteer firefighter for 32 years and served as the volunteer fire chief for two.
Even so, Lopez’s first career goal wasn’t firefighting. He was studying biology to become a biologist focusing on small mammals when he first graduated high school. But, while he passed the time in college, he volunteered for the fire department.
“I fell in love with it. It’s something different every day,” Lopez said. “Every alarm is different. It might have the same type of fire, but every fire is different.”
Over the years, Lopez said, the fire department is responding to fewer and fewer fires and more to EMS calls and other hazardous incidents. He credited the department’s fire prevention program as a big part of the decrease. As a result, Lopez is looking at what the department can do to supplement the private ambulance service that is contracted by the city. In the past two weeks, he said, 40 percent of the calls at the department were for EMS.
Also, the members of the department have taken on a new challenge as a part of Texas Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team sponsored by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension office.
The department’s goals will be the same under his leadership, Lopez said, but the processes will be different. Saldaña was more hands-on, Lopez said, but he likes to give an order and give staff time to do it.
“If Chief Saldaña were a superhero, his power would be the ability to remember minutes details of everything, and that’s incredible, you know, because I don’t know how he did it,” Lopez said. “I’m trying to manage my time.”
Lopez said he’d been looking at retirement if he wasn’t named chief, but given this new adventure, he’s planning to keep working another two or three years minimum.
“Every day is different, so it’s like when you’re traveling on the road and you see new buildings, it goes by fast. But if you only see open spaces, it seems real slow,” Lopez said. “I didn’t expect to reach this point so fast. It went by in a blink of an eye for me.”