People Who Make Southlake: Chief Michael Starr

Since childhood, I’ve had a fascination with the job of a fire fighter and was thrilled to sit down with our City’s Fire Chief, Michael Starr to learn more about his job.

Of course, we started off with some small talk, which led to his background and where he grew up. Mike grew up in Aubrey, a small community northeast of Denton, with a population of about 2,000 people. The Chief remarked, “It’s a small town where everyone still knows everyone. It’s where I went to school, played football, and I actually still live there and drive to Southlake for work.”

Isn’t that a long drive to Southlake? “It’s a little bit of a commute, but Aubrey still has a rural atmosphere, and I’m really involved in the community out there. My family is from the area, so I like to stay close to my family.”

We transitioned to how he came to work in Southlake, and I found out that Mike’s been working for the City for fourteen years.

In 1997, I was working at The Colony’s fire department and volunteering with Aubrey’s fire department. The fire academy coordinator at the time told me that Southlake was up and coming and that I would enjoy working here. Always up for a new challenge, I tested here and was excited to hear calls about structure fires over the radio. I saw how Southlake ran its operations and decided this was where I wanted to be. When I arrived, I found Southlake was experiencing a good deal more action and growth than The Colony, where I had previously worked.”

How do you feel about the job now? “Fourteen years have gone by, I’m still here, and I love my job. It was a good decision- no regrets.”

As we chatted about his job, Mike shared his memories of his first day on the job in Southlake.

“A storm of calls came through that day- 15 in fact- and the guys on shift said, ‘This is not our norm; we don’t usually run this many calls a day.’ When we responded to a structure fire call, I figured they wouldn’t let me do anything since it was my first day on the job. We pulled up to a house with flames going through the roof, and my field training officer grabbed a nozzle and said, ‘Here you go, Mike. Get after it!’ We did a good job and put a stop to the fire. The only downside was that one of us had to stay with the house all night.” He explained, “We have a policy that if a structure fire occurs, and there are hot spots, we stay with the house for several hours to make sure it doesn’t re-kindle. Since I was the new guy, I got to stay with it all night! It was my first day in Southlake, so I had no clue where I was or how to get around. The guys told me, ‘We’ll be back to get you in the morning. Don’t go to sleep.’” The chief laughed and added, “I’ll never forget that first day on the job in Southlake! We handled car fires, structure fires, and emergency response runs, and for a fire fighter, it was like, ‘This is the place to be!’ But like I said, it isn’t always like that; it’s usually much calmer.”

Tell me about your journey to becoming Fire Chief.

“Robert Finn, promoted to Fire Chief in 2003, and I put in for Captain of Operations- a position that handles day-to-day activities and anything that has to do with fire and emergency response. While Chief Finn did the administrative budgeting, council meetings and such, I handled the daily operations of the department.”

Chief Starr went on to tell me that in 2008, when Chief Finn transitioned to Interim Police Chief, Starr promoted to Interim Fire Chief. Because City Manager Shana Yelverton liked the direction the departments were taking, she offered to make the positions permanent, and the men accepted.

Continuing in our conversation, I learned that the Southlake Fire department does much more than respond to fires.

“We employ certified fire inspectors who go out to make sure buildings are up to code and there are no violations. In doing so, we become more familiar with building layouts and know where things are in the event of a fire.” Starr told me that the majority of the calls they receive are for Emergency Medical Services, and these keep the staff busy. “People used to think we just sit around fire stations in recliners every day, but it’s not like that at all. We are a relatively small department, so we wear many hats and do plenty of work.”

Since you are required to show up for every structure fire, you obviously keep a hectic schedule. How do you keep this job from consuming all of your family time?

“When I take off work, family is my focus. When I’m at home, it’s all about them. Does our time get interrupted sometimes? Yes, it does. But if I worked a 9-to-5 and came home at 5 but wasn’t interacting and spending time with my family, there would be no use in me even being there. When I am with my family, we have good quality time together, go to movies, go camping, and work out together. My wife loves to go camping, so I try to take off a couple weeks each year for us to go with her family to New Braunsfel, float the river, and camp out.”

What do you see with staff in your department when it comes to family time?

“I try to keep my own family involved in the department, and I encourage the same with our firemen. I think that in fire service, you need to be family oriented. One of the things we do is display a case containing photos of our families. Sometimes, our spouses and kids come up to see us at work and go out to lunch with us. I know our firemen’s families, and they know my family. The guys are already close because we basically live together every third day. Family involvement just makes us that much closer and connected.”

I asked the Chief about his goals for the Southlake Fire Department and wasn’t at all surprised to hear that some of them involve children and families. He told me that Safety Town is one big project he’s working on right now. “It has so much potential for being able to educate the community and opens up a whole new avenue for us to be able to interact with and teach kids.”

Also important to him is opening and staffing the new north Southlake facility. “Our response times up to the north area are longer than we want because we don’t have a station there. It’s our goal to shorten that response time.” Additionally, the department prioritizes maintaining their accreditation. The process involves officials visiting the department to check whether it meets national standards. Starr explained, “Without some kind of measurement tool, such as accreditation, you hear complaints from citizens that you aren’t doing your job. Sometimes, departments get complacent and think they are doing what they need to be doing rather than taking steps to constantly improve. This City is always looking for means of improvement, a priority driven by the city manager. I don’t think any of us will ever get to the point where we think we are good enough. We are always planning and implementing ways to provide our citizens with high-quality emergency service.”

How can Southlake residents help fire fighters do their job? This was my final question to the Chief. He told me that the Department puts a high priority on educating the community, and particularly, its children about fire prevention. “While we do go into the schools and invite kids into the fire station, I’m not sure how many parents talk with their kids about fire prevention activities. It actually is important to set off your smoke alarms to see if they are loud enough to wake up the kids, and what they would sound like if they sounded.” Starr said parents should put together their own emergency plan and go over it with the kids- what to do if you hear the smoke alarms, how to get out of the house, and where to meet up as a family. “These are things you can do at home to help prevent injury to your child in the event of a fire; when you hear those alarms, they put you in panic mode. But if you train your kids, they will know what to do if your alarms do go off.”

As we wrapped up, I realized that my childhood dream of becoming a fireman wouldn’t be so much about big, red trucks and spotted Dalmatians. Rather, it would be more about commitment and service to a community. And if I had become a fireman, I would be proud to call Mike Starr my Chief.

By Zack Polyak