Harvey Little retires after 31 years as Fire Chief

By David Taylor
Managing Editor

HIGHLANDS – When Harvey Little left the scenic piney woods of Henderson in northeast Texas, he did so in pursuit of a better paying job. He didn’t know that his journey to Houston would involve a firefighting career that would bring him notoriety and last more than three decades. Little retired from the department in December 2023 and will have more time to himself now after giving over the reins.

“I was hired to work in the polypropylene plant at Exxon in Baytown,” he said. He spent his entire career for ExxonMobil in that same unit, advancing to supervisor in the process technology department and shifting to training supervisor his last 13 years. He took his retirement in 1999.

His interest in the fire department piqued after his son Michael Shane spent five years in the department after joining at age 15.

“He asked me to come and check them out and so I did,” he said.

Little joined in 1987 and began a storied career.

“It was all volunteer when I joined, and we had about 60 volunteers. We had two stations at the time, the one at 123 San Jacinto Street, and the second one at 2301 East Wallisville,” he said.

Little spent a lot of his spare time working at the department and making calls. He was also making a lot of friends in the process.

Five years later, in 1992, he was voted in as the new fire chief. He has remained at the helm of the department for 31 years.

Little earned incentive pay, but no salary from the department. His service, he said, was for the love of his community.

In 2022 when the fire services came under the umbrella of the Emergency Services District, residents voted in a property tax of five cents on every $100 valuation. They later voted in a 2-cent sales tax. Both of those collections have helped the department fund additional equipment and better facilities.

“During my time as chief, we redid the fire station at 123 San Jacinto to what it is now, and then six or seven years ago, we replaced the station at 2301 East Wallisville,” Little said.

Now it’s big enough to hold three big trucks, two squad trucks, and a brush truck.

“We’ve replaced just about every piece of equipment we had since I was chief,” he said, “which was no easy feat.”

Funds in those early days came from donations through the water districts. They still receive about $5,000 per month from the water district office that sits next door to the fire station.

“Sometimes, area citizens would walk the streets and collect funds and bring them to us,” he said.

The EMS began billing in 2002, but coffers didn’t fill up necessarily with the extra $300 per month they received.

“Our annual budget back then was only around $30,000,” he said.

Now the budget exceeds $1.6 million which has allowed them to hire eight full-time EMS personnel to maintain a 24/7 schedule, 18 that are part-time pay and work somewhere else, and two years ago they began paying a day crew of three firefighters, seven days a week.

“Now we have raised that to four full-timers and that helps us meet our need,” he said.

They recently began running two ambulances 24/7 every day of the week.

The ESD paid off the debt of the new fire station within five years after it was built.

“I feel good that I have left them in good financial shape. We’ve paid off trucks including three that we owe only one more payment on and we’ll be done with them,” he said.

Little said they are still seeking additional volunteers and its no cheap venture to equip them for service.

“One handheld radio these days costs almost $6,000,” he said. Fire gear fully dressed is more than $5,000. They furnish helmets at $400 each, boots, and gloves.

All the equipment has to be replaced approximately every 10 years.

Little’s leadership exploits have earned him numerous awards including the Citizen of the Year award from the Highlands-Lynchburg Chamber of Commerce, Highlands Rotary Club, Harris County Firefighters Association Award of the year in 2007, and twice honored in 2005 and 2023 named as the Firefighter of the Year by his peers at the Highlands Volunteer Fire Department banquet.

“I’ve had some good times and some bad,” he said.

One of his proudest accomplishments was no Line of Duty Deaths.

“I didn’t lose any firemen during my time. That’s a hard record to keep,” he said.

The worst fire he responded to? Four Corners.

“It was right after I joined the fire department. I was inside the one part that was the liquor store,” he said. The walls began falling in. He and the other firefighters working inside were able to escape, but the whole block was a total loss.

“The wind was blowing about 30 mph which made it considerably worse,” for Highlands, Sheldon, and Channelview who also responded.

Little, who has literally made thousands of calls over his career, said he will miss his fellow firefighters. Many community members affectionately call him the mayor of Highlands.

Little always kept candy in his office for the children who would visit the fire department. Now he’ll spread it around to his heritage— three sons, nine grandkids, and seven great grandchildren.

Harvey Little will always be chief.

“I’ll miss the firemen and medics. I feel like I was a friend to all of them. They were my friends. They all come by and tell me they love me, so I guess they appreciated everything I did,” he said.

They did, Harvey, and so did the community.