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?

Twelve-year-old Daniel Lopez looked forward to going back this summer to Houston's east side, where he had lived until he was about four. When his parents split up, Daniel moved to the north side of town with his mom, but even eight years later, the boy still held fond memories of the East End. So when his 21-year-old sister, Yecenia Escobar, her husband and their two small children recently moved into an apartment in east Houston, Daniel convinced his mother to let him stay with the family during summer vacation. He looked forward to riding his bicycle through the neighborhood; he was also eager to play with his four-year-old nephew and eight-month-old niece. Daniel even told Yecenia how lucky -- and how safe -- she and her family were to live around the corner from a fire station.

Fire Station 18 would prove to be neither lucky nor safe for Daniel. Instead, it would ignite a firestorm within the Houston Fire Department that could cost Chief Lester Tyra the job he has coveted all his adult life.

On a Saturday afternoon in June, the day before Father's Day, Daniel stayed at the apartment and watched television while his sister and brother-in-law were out running errands. Around four o'clock, Daniel became nauseated and began experiencing severe chest and back pains. His sister's mother-in-law, Lucia Mendez, was visiting other relatives in the building, and Daniel went to her for help. Since Station 18 was just around the corner on Telephone Road, Mendez took Daniel there, thinking the boy would get treatment faster there than if she called an ambulance.

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.
The Lopez family wants answers.
Deron Neblett
The Lopez family wants answers.
Daniel's mother, Sonia Lopez (left), and his sister, Yecenia Escobar.
Deron Neblett
Daniel's mother, Sonia Lopez (left), and his sister, Yecenia Escobar.
Lucia Mendez tried to get help for Daniel Lopez at Station 18.
Deron Neblett
Lucia Mendez tried to get help for Daniel Lopez at Station 18.
It took an ambulance 18 minutes to reach mortally wounded Troy Blando.
It took an ambulance 18 minutes to reach mortally wounded Troy Blando.

After the short walk to the station, Daniel vomited. A firefighter allegedly told the boy that he probably had a stomach virus and suggested he go home and take a cold bath. Daniel went home but returned 30 minutes later, pleading for help. Again, relatives say, Daniel was told to go home and rest. Twenty minutes later, Daniel was back once more at Station 18. He still had chest and back pains, and now his stomach was distended. Since Station 18's ambulance was out on a call, Mendez and one of Daniel's aunts say, they were told by a fireman to take Daniel to the hospital in their own car. By the time the women got Daniel back to the apartment, Yecenia and her husband had returned, and they immediately rushed the sixth-grader to Ben Taub. Four and a half hours later, Daniel died of an aortic aneurysm.

On July 31, Sergio Lopez (no relation), a 20-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department who was two weeks short of qualifying for retirement, was suspended indefinitely, or basically fired, for allegedly failing to follow department policy and provide Daniel with proper medical attention. Lopez was the third HFD employee terminated by Tyra in recent weeks in connection with incidents in which someone had died after allegedly failing to receive adequate medical help from HFD personnel. The first two firings, on July 24, were in response to the June 10 death of Jose Ruiz, 35, whom paramedics allegedly refused to transport to a hospital after he complained of stomach pains. He later died at his home. So far, the cause of death is undetermined.

The deaths of Ruiz and Lopez are only the most dramatic examples in a series of controversies that have recently brought the city's fire department under the microscope. Since Mayor Lee Brown named Tyra chief 29 months ago, there have been at least nine episodes (including the two mentioned above) that have raised concerns about the performance of the Houston Fire Department. That equates to just about one flare-up every three months, a rate reminiscent of the rash of controversies that plagued the Houston Police Department back in the late 1970s.

In the wake of the Lopez tragedy, a Houston couple came forward with allegations that in June 1998, Station 18 personnel failed to examine their son or transport him to a hospital after he ingested lighter fluid. The boy survived.

This past January, a Kingwood man collapsed during a soccer match and died after emergency calls were misdirected by 911 operators.

The city's Office of Inspector General is investigating an allegation by a woman who maintains that an ambulance driver stopped for doughnuts while transporting her son to a hospital recently.

On July 13 of this year, Houston City Councilman John Castillo watched from his City Hall office window as a man injured in an accident a few blocks from a downtown fire station waited close to 18 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Amid criticism that HFD fire crews are not adequately staffed, two firefighters were killed in February while battling an intentionally set blaze at a McDonald's restaurant.

This past May, a federal judge ruled that Chief Tyra discriminated against a 57-year-old district chief whom Tyra allegedly decided not to promote because he was too old. The ruling is on appeal.

And in May 1999, in perhaps the most damning of all the incidents, Houston police officer Troy Blando was fatally shot in the line of duty. Following the shooting, it was learned the chief had reassigned an HFD captain to emergency dispatch allegedly as punishment even though Tyra knew the man was hard-of-hearing. When Blando was shot, the hearing-impaired dispatcher fielded the call, misunderstood the address of the shooting and sent the ambulance to the wrong location. Blando died en route to the hospital. Mayor Brown suspended Tyra for seven days, but the chief's critics felt he should have been fired. The Lopez termination has renewed calls for Tyra's dismissal.

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."

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.

"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.

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 Chroniclestory 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.

As a sort of olive branch to Houston's Hispanic community, which is upset over the deaths of Daniel Lopez and Jose Ruiz, Tyra recently created a panel charged with improving relations between Latinos and the fire department. (A few days later, the mayor formed his own committee to help resolve public safety issues in HFD.) Tyra also decided not to move the Station 18 ladder truck to another fire station as earlier planned, a proposal that had met with a good deal of criticism in the predominantly Hispanic eastside neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Daniel Lopez's tragedy, his family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Houston and the firefighters who were on duty at Station 18.

"I think the policy is set at the top," says attorney John Tavormina, who represents the boy's family. "And that is what goes through the department. I think the firefighters have been neglected, and somebody needs to take a look at the whole system. You can't put Band-Aids on it, and I think that's what they are trying to do. They have a problem here and a problem there. Somebody's got to look at the whole system."

But as he has done all along, Chief Tyra talks as if the fires that surround him were merely barbecue flames instead of the towering infernos they seem to be.

"People say the fire department is under investigation, or the fire chief is inadequate," says Tyra. "Simply because we have an isolated incident where a person fails to follow guidelines, or because of accusations made by the public, we ought not jump to conclusions. Because the men and women of this department bust their tails every day to do the job."

The entire fire department may not be under investigation -- yet -- but whether Tyra admits it or not, it is under fire, and he is under the gun. He could soon have a lot more time for golf again.

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