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?

With Tyra standing at attention to his right, the mayor made his sometimes rambling comments, laced with the usual amount of Brown-speak that leaves a listener wondering what he just heard. The mayor was responding to questions from the media -- questions fueled by Councilman Orlando Sanchez's scathing comments about the fire department earlier that day during the weekly meeting of the City Council.

During the portion of the session known as "pop off," in which councilmembers bring up issues that are of personal concern, Sanchez zeroed in on Tyra, the death of Daniel Lopez and the fire department. Most troubling to him, said Sanchez, was the number of fire-related deaths in Houston during the past six and a half years: 14 in 1995, 18 in 1996, 23 in 1997, 35 in 1998, 29 in 1999 and, alarmingly, 25 during the first six months of this year. Brown downplayed the statistics by saying that holding the fire department responsible for fire fatalities is like blaming homicides on the police department. (However, during his years as Houston police chief in the 1980s, it was not uncommon for Brown and HPD to take credit for any decline in the city's crime rate, although the mayor now maintains that he was "very careful in taking credit" for those reductions.)

The most drastic drops in Houston's crime rate came during the 1990s when the city pumped large amounts of money and resources into the police department. It was a policy that some, including Sanchez and Steve Williams, the current head of the firefighters union, say was made at the expense of the fire department -- a decision that did not allow the department to keep pace with an increased demand for service, which now totals close to 350,000 emergency runs per year.

Former fire chief Eddie Corral and former mayor Bob Lanier were in charge of the department during most of the 1990s, so Tyra can't be blamed for any erosion in the quality of service during that time. Tyra points with pride to the fact that he and Brown recently initiated a five-year strategic plan to better forecast the department's needs and its budget.

"This department is 105 years old now," says Tyra. "It's never had a strategic plan, never had a five-year road map of what we were going to do next, or what programs we were going to document and measure along the way to make sure we were accomplishing our goals and objectives."

Unveiled in February, HFD's strategic plan covers a lot of ground, from the "quality of the working environment" to plans to improve the operation of the department to improving the public perception of HFD. It cites obviously important goals, such as increasing the department's equipment, as well as some seemingly common-sense items, such as the definition of accountability. "Accountability is defined as answerable, capable of being explained," reads the report.

Tyra has also implemented a more rigorous retraining program for his men and women. Over the last two years, the number of retraining hours for Houston firefighters has increased from five hours to 31 hours a month. The department now has multiple company drills and night drills. The result, Tyra hopes, is a safer city coupled with lower fire insurance rates for Houstonians. But the chief also acknowledges his desire for change has been met with a good deal of resistance.

"This administration has brought about change, aggressive change," says Tyra. "And anytime you change an organization of this size, to improve, I think you have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Traditional embeddedness. We want to move things forward and away from the traditional go-along, get-along, don't bother the rank-and-file [mode of operation]."

Tyra, in fact, has bothered the rank-and-file a good deal. He took heat soon after becoming chief for kowtowing to Brown's decision to staff most of the department's heavy equipment with only three firefighters instead of the traditional four, the theory being that there is strength -- and safety -- in numbers.

The staffing reductions run contrary to national standards. According to a spokesman for the National Fire Professionals Association, the average staff on large equipment in cities with more than one million residents is 4.19 for engine companies and 5.08 for ladder trucks.

The decision to reduce the levels has cost Tyra support among the men and women of the department, says union head Williams, who stops just short of charging that the staffing policy contributed to the deaths of two firefighters earlier this year. In February, 44-year-old Lewis Mayo and 30-year-old Kimberly Ann Smith, two members of a three-firefighter team at Fire Station 76, died while battling a blaze intentionally set to cover up a burglary at McDonald's.

"I would say on behalf of my members that we are in a crisis situation," says Williams. "Because I don't want to see another [firefighter] hurt. I don't want to see another [firefighter] killed. I don't want to see another citizen hurt. I don't want to see another citizen killed because of our staffing problems."

The city vows to hire more firefighters. One cadet class just graduated in June. Another is now at the academy, and the Brown administration has budgeted for three classes during fiscal year 2001. But Williams does not believe it will be so easy to attract candidates to Houston since, according to Firehouse magazine, the city ranks 103rd in the nation in starting salaries.

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