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Investigation reveals Nueces County fire marshal doesn't have necessary job certifications

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Posted at 12:05 PM, May 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 23:15:55-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Lionel Lopez is worried about Banquete, a small town of about 800 people on the western edge of Nueces County, with no adequate fire hydrants.

"All the houses that have burned here have burned to the ground," he said. "All of them."

He points to what looks like a fire hydrant just outside a school in the Banquete Independent School District, but tells 6 Investigates it's not a hydrant — it's a flush valve.

Lopez is a retired Corpus Christi firefighter. He says hydrant colors represent water-flow capacity: Red is the lowest, with only 500 gallons per minute.

"If this school ever catches fire, they're not going to put it out," he said.

Banquete ISD said the district's three schools currently do not have sprinklers because they weren't required by law when the schools were built, so Lopez said he went to Nueces County Fire Marshal Jose Olivares.

"I said 'Can you go out with me to Banquete Independent School District? I wanna show you a fire hydrant,' " he said. " 'And he said 'No.' "

Lopez said he was shocked by Olivares' refusal.

"I said are you a fire marshal? And he said, 'I haven't passed the exam,' " Lopez said.

The Texas Commission on Fire Protection (TCFP) requires fire inspectors to take exams for certifications. Jose F. Olivares has no certifications listed.

The job posting in 2020 required, in part, obtaining the following TCFP certifications within six months of appointment — basic fire investigator, fire inspector levels I and II, arson investigator, and plans examiner.

Documents obtained by KRIS 6 News show Olivares didn't have these certifications when he was hired, and doesn't have them now.

The TCFP is the agency in charge of regulating and enforcing certification requirements and firefighter safety standards for governmental entities employing fire-protection personnel. We reached out to the TCFP and provided them with a copy of the Nueces County fire marshal job description to see if Olivares would fall under their regulation.

We (TCFP) is working to initiate a conversation with Nueces County officials so that we can better understand all of the circumstances. Once we are able to verify which duties are being performed by the fire marshal, we will work with them to ensure compliance.
Mike Wisko, Agency Chief TCFP

"The fire marshal was a mistake," said Pct. 4 county commissioner Brent Chesney. "I take my responsibility and I think the court takes its responsibility. The HR director has to take her responsibility, and the county judge has to take hers, because he's reported to her for the last year-and-a-half."

KRIS 6 News reached out to county judge Barbara Canales several times by email, text message, and in person. She agreed to an interview, but never made herself available and never responded to a list of questions.

In an April 8 commissioner court meeting, Canales said "he (Olivares) has met all the qualifications of a fire marshal for the State of Texas and he does not have an arson investigator license yet, or certification, I should say. But, he is a certified fire marshal for the State of Texas. He has his peace officer license and he has met all other statutory requirements."

Barbara Canales assures commisioners Jose Olivares has state fire marshal

According to the state statute, to qualify for office, a county fire marshal : "must take the oath prescribed by the constitution of this state and post a bond as required by the commissioners court conditioned that the marshal will faithfully and strictly perform the duties of the office."

We've checked, and Olivares has not taken an oath or posted a bond.

While the court voted to create the office of the fire marshal in 2019, the court did not hire Olivares, and until last month, Olivares only answered to Canales.

Last month, commissioners voted to move the fire marshal position under their supervision to provide oversight of the position.

Another requirement of the position is to have a basic peace officer certification by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE). Though Olivares previously served as a Corpus Christi Police Officer, TCOLE tells KRIS 6 News that Olivares currently has no authority to act as a peace officer.

This is because no law enforcement agency has commissioned his license, and the county has not applied for the implementation of a TCOLE commission for the fire marshal office, the commission said.

Peace officer authority is derived from the commissioning by a law enforcement agency of a properly licensed individual. A peace officer with 10 or more years of service who holds a Qualified Retired Identification Card or Honorably Retired Identification Card and is current on firearms qualifications is eligible to carry a weapon in the same way as a peace officer, but this does not indicate peace officer authority.
Gretchen Grigsby, TCOLE

We asked Pct. 3 county commissioner John Marez if Olivares had been conducting any fire investigations: Marez said Olivares had not.

We also reached out to Olivares to ask what he was doing if he can't do inspections or investigations. He told us by text message that he was out of the office.

We followed up, offering a phone or Zoom interview, but did not receive a response.

Commissioners, however, plan on asking these questions Wednesday.

"I want to talk about the job description that he was hired under and whether or not he's got the qualifications under the job description he was hired under or not," Chesney said. "And, if he doesn't — what efforts has he been taking to get those, and how long will it take?"

In January, Olivares sent an email to the commissioners' court saying he is currently enrolled at Houston Community College in the inspector I and II classes. He said it was the only school he could find with those classes online, post-COVID-19.

He told commissioners other entities postponed training due to COVID, but, we obtained documentation that shows these courses were available online last year.

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