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?

"The only thing that attracts cadets to the Houston Fire Department right now are the 24-hour shifts and multiple days off," says Williams.

Williams also believes that Tyra, when he became chief, thought he would be able to run the department and make the union go along with his plans since he had so many allies in it. As is turns out, in Williams's opinion, Tyra hasn't done either. As a result, he finds himself watching his support erode within the department and on City Council.

Tyra's relationship with Sanchez has been deteriorating for some time, although the councilman is quick to add that he believes the chief's hands are tied by the mayor, who tells department heads how much their budgets will be and doesn't appreciate them asking for -- or accepting -- more. As if playing the obedient son to Daddy Brown, Tyra turned down an offer by City Council to increase his budget by $13.3 million, saying he had no plan to implement the additional spending.

Daniel Lopez looked forward to playing with his niece this summer near Station 18.
Deron Neblett
Daniel Lopez looked forward to playing with his niece this summer near Station 18.

During a council meeting in January, the chief also got crossways with Councilman Carroll Robinson, whom Tyra accused of trying to micromanage the department when the councilman opposed the chief's plan to consolidate several positions in the dispatch office.

"When do I get to manage the fire department?" Tyra was quoted as saying to Robinson. "Allow me to succeed or fail on my decisions."

Robinson fired back: "If you think that's a problem … maybe the first supervisor's position we ought to eliminate is fire chief." Robinson added, "The next time you go through the budget process … and I volunteer to give you money and you turn it down, do not come to council and tell me that I'm putting public safety at risk, that I'm micromanaging and I can't let you do your job."

Union boss Williams says the exchange was a classic example of Tyra's propensity for confrontation, a characteristic that, at varying times, has been both a blessing and a curse for the chief.

"During the Whitmire years," says Williams, "Chief Tyra, as union chief, fought hard. He would never back down." But, says Williams, Tyra could also hold grudges. That vindictiveness, says the union leader, does not always serve the chief well and has sometimes come back to bite him, as it allegedly did in the case of the fatal shooting of officer Troy Blando.

On May 19, 1999, 39-year-old Blando was working as a member of the Houston Police Department's auto theft task force when he was shot in the parking lot of a motel in the 6800 block of the Southwest Freeway. An ambulance did not reach Blando until almost 20 minutes after the shooting because the emergency dispatcher, Captain Donald Clark, who is hearing-impaired, misheard the address and sent the ambulance to the wrong location. Blando died en route to the hospital. Clark received a 15-day suspension. Tyra, who was aware of Clark's hearing impairment, received only a seven-day suspension. Not only was the chief aware of his handicap, according to a statement Clark made to the Houston Chronicle, but Tyra assigned him to dispatch because of a long-standing feud between the two men. (The Chronicle story did not elaborate on the feud, and the Press was unable to contact Clark.)

In an interview with the Press, Tyra has little to say on the Blando case.

"I think that's history as far as I'm concerned," says the chief. "My discussion with the mayor was very private in regards to Blando. It was more an administrative issue than the Blando issue. And I accepted his decision and went forward from there. And as far as I'm concerned, the department, through the [Office of Inspector General], identified the concerns. They are for public consumption. My suspension, by the mayor, was clearly between me and him."

Blando's widow, Judy, declined to be interviewed for this story. However, HPD officer Hans Marticuic, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union, made it clear that although Blando might have died even with immediate medical attention, he has no warm feelings for Tyra.

"This has had a horrible impact on the Blando family," says Marticuic. "In speaking with Judy, you can just still hear it in her voice."

Similarly, firefighter union president Williams questions why Station 18 firefighter Sergio Lopez was terminated for allegedly failing to give proper treatment to Daniel Lopez while Tyra was allowed to continue as chief.

"The punishment does not fit the crime," says Williams. "When it comes to the leadership of the department, the men have to be willing to follow the leader. I don't think you have that right now."

'It's been a long, hot summer for Fire Chief Lester Tyra. Last month, during a City Council meeting, Councilman Chris Bell went so far as to suggest that Tyra may well be out of chances.

"I think it's odd that all of a sudden you have [several] high-profile incidents in a row, whereas I don't recall these types of incidents in the past," said Bell.

Although his job appears safe for the moment, Tyra seems to be taking precautionary measures, particularly since August and September can be the hottest and stormiest months of the year.

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