Fire Chief Comes Home To Serve & Brings Back Volunteers
At 32 years old, Javier Campos Jr., became the Rio Grande Valley’s youngest fire chief, a Mercedes native coming home to lead a vitally important public safety department.
“I was walking into a grown man’s game,’’ he said recently of joining the ranks of chiefs.
Then there was the element of doing it in his hometown.
“I grew up running these streets, (in Mercedes),’’ he said. “It’s an honor and thrill to be here as chief.’’
Although young in age, Campos already had 11 years of experience as a flight paramedic and working for the Weslaco Fire Department before coming home to be an assistant chief and then being made chief in 2020. Campos navigated his department through the pandemic when he had to lead visiting firefighters from outside of the Valley due to the high number of staff members that were ill.
Public service was maintained throughout those challenges and Campos today oversees a staff of 20 paid professionals of firefighters and paramedics. Mercedes has substantially increased its public safety budget and invested in protecting and serving the community.
The chief in his time as the department’s leader has added another element to his operations. Campos has brought back volunteer firefighters. In doing so, he reached back in the city’s history when the volunteers made up the majority of those racing out to the community and surrounding area to deal with fires and emergencies. For years, the volunteers made up to 80 percent of Mercedes’ firefighters. One of those volunteers was Campos’ father and the future chief grew up around firefighting and knowing those who served the community.
“I wanted to bring back that volunteer culture,’’ Campos said after the volunteer force had been disbanded under his predecessor. “It was a no-brainer to bring them back.’’
Serve Important Roles
The chief takes out an old wooden box from a desk drawer.
Inside are white and black marbles. The box and its contents harken back to past eras in Mercedes firefighting history. Campos pointed out that volunteer firefighters once voted on whether to keep or boot out an aspiring volunteer after a try out period. If anyone put a black ball in the box it meant the new volunteer would have to depart the force. He had been blackballed.
Where there were once up to 30 volunteer firefighters, there are currently 10 in Mercedes. They have weekly training sessions and meetings. The volunteers play an invaluable support role when the professional force is busy and a call comes in for assistance. Campos calls them “the backbone of our department and they’re there when we need help.’’
The Mercedes Fire Department in working with Hidalgo County government covers a wide rural area. The department goes out to emergencies southward to the Rio Grande and to points nearly 15 miles north of town. Add in that emergency medical services are now the province of the city, and it keeps the department busy, so it becomes necessary for Campos to contact the volunteers’ leader, C.A Hinojosa III. He is a lieutenant in the department and a volunteer himself. Chief Campos reaches out to Hinojosa when volunteer assistance is required.
“The department has changed in many positive ways since Chief Campos brought the volunteers back,’’ said Hinojosa, a community leader and co-owner of The Mercedes Enterprise. “Volunteers assist fulltime crews at all times of the day and night with fire calls.’’
The volunteers add to the fire department’s manpower and have improved response times to emergencies, Hinojosa said. He pointed out that a select group of the volunteers are highly experienced and are certified firefighters. The volunteers are also active in public relation events such as parades and greeting the public at functions.
“It’s a great asset to the city of Mercedes,’’ Hinojosa said. “It helps in community involvement and keeps the city covered with fire and EMS.’’
Chief Campos sees the volunteer force as a possible stepping stone to having future professional firefighters. He actively goes to area high schools and speaks with students about the possibilities of a career in firefighting and using volunteer time to reach that goal. The chief has 10 now but would like to have more volunteers in his department.
“I’ve told C.A., `let’s bring it back up again.’ We need to start recruiting,’’ the chief said.