On The Hot Seat

Lester Tyra's short reign as chief of the Houston Fire Department has been filled with controversy. Can he quench the flames fast enough to save his job?

Despite the increasing number of hot spots within the department, Tyra balks at the suggestion that his tenure as chief, also marked with numerous run-ins with city councilmembers, has been tumultuous. He maintains that the controversies should not reflect poorly on the department or, for that matter, on his performance as chief. Yet as the problems of the Houston Fire Department continue to burn seemingly out of control, Tyra is trying to put out not only those fires, but also the flames that lick at his heels and threaten to consume him.

'When Mayor Lee Brown selected Lester Tyra as his nominee for fire chief in March 1998, Tyra was already a well-known commodity, at least within media and political circles.

From 1974 to 1991, Tyra headed the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, where he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator and a strong advocate for the rank-and-file, a guy who often found himself going toe-to-toe with mayors, councilmembers and department heads. His style did not endear him to some of the folks he went up against. Robert Clayton, who was fire chief under former mayor Kathy Whitmire, was once quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying, "Lester Tyra's idea of training is to tell his relief man what happened on General Hospital." Later Clayton also told the newspaper that Tyra "does have leadership ability, even though we did clash."

During Tyra's time as union boss, reporters could always count on him for a quote; at different times, he described Clayton as "a paper tiger," "bonkers" and "juvenile," among other things. Despite their disputes, Clayton promoted Tyra to a district chief position in 1991. Although he was voted out as union head shortly thereafter, Tyra, as district chief, developed a reputation -- with reporters, at least -- as someone quick to send additional firefighters to a scene by pulling a second or third alarm. During an interview with the Houston Press in his corner office at the fire department's headquarters northwest of downtown, Tyra proudly acknowledges that he was never hesitant to send in reinforcements.

"That's the way I did business," says Tyra, sitting at a burgundy-colored table with a surface so shiny you can see your reflection. "When I came up in the department, I worked for a captain and a chief that believed that you went until you dropped. They were good men, but their people either put out the fire or stayed there until it burned to the ground. And I always thought to myself that that's not the way it ought to be. In this department, there's 683 positions available every day. And if I need 600 of them to help me put a fire out, rather than overextend and injure the first-alarm companies, I'm going to get what's necessary there."

Tyra's promotion to district chief gave him the opportunity to make sure he always had enough crews at the scene, but it was not the first time during his career with the Houston Fire Department that he had thought about having more power. Indeed, according to Tyra, he believed he would become fire chief from the very first day he entered HFD's training academy. When asked to explain what inspired his epiphany, he seems rather perplexed by the question, saying only that it was a career goal, one that he assumes is shared by every person who joins the department.

Tyra's designs on the chief's job signaled a radical change in his feelings about the department. As a child, he never even envisioned himself joining the department, much less heading it. His father was a career firefighter, and Tyra remembers him coming home covered in soot and tar. Tyra lived with a fear that one day his dad would not come home at all.

After graduating from E.L. Furr High School in 1965, Tyra, a native Houstonian, received a golf scholarship to South Texas Junior College (now the University of Houston-Downtown), which was then a pipeline to the University of Houston's prestigious golf program headed by coach Dave Williams. But Tyra soon found that college-level golf was too much like having a job, and that if he was going to work, he might as well get paid for it. So in 1967 he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service. Two years later, in 1969, HFD began an aggressive hiring program, and Tyra's father convinced him to apply. As he moved up the ranks, he would have less and less time for golf while eyeing the department's top job.

"From the day I entered the academy, I thought I would be fire chief," says Tyra. "I always thought I had the opportunity. I applied myself by learning and participating and traveling and discovering what the fire service was all about. I always thought I could be chief. I always thought I had the knowledge and the leadership ability."

These days, that ability is being seriously questioned.

'Last month, Mayor Brown stood before reporters and photographers in the public chambers of the remodeled Houston City Hall to declare his support for his fire chief.

"If you look at what happens on a day-to-day basis," said the mayor, "our firefighters are responding to emergency services. Our EMS people are responding to emergency services -- tens of thousands a year. So we do not have a crisis in our fire department."

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