Riding Short

Houston firefighters say the city has been playing Russian roulette by carrying crews of three members instead of four on its trucks. Last October, Jay Paul Jahnke anted up with his life.

They exited the apartment and headed down the hall, but a nasty thing happened when they opened the stairwell door, sources say. The stairwell acted like a ferocious maw, sucking heat and smoke down from the burning apartment. For Jahnke and Green the effect was overwhelming. The smoke grew thick as a blindfold; a torrent of hot air whirred past. The captains reportedly tried to beat a retreat by following their hose out of the apartment and down the hallway, a task made brutally complicated by the coiled, irregular pathway of their lifeline.

The violent shift in the air current created high confusion by sucking the heat away from the fire. To Jahnke it seemed as if they were headed toward the fire, not away from it, as they followed the path of the hose, Hauck says.

"Jay kept telling him, 'I think we're going the wrong way,' " says Hauck, whose wife was Jahnke's first cousin. Hauck bases his account on what firefighters at the scene told him.

"Jay suffered a horrible death," says Ed Hauck.
"Jay suffered a horrible death," says Ed Hauck.
Union president Steve Williams maintains that staffing woes threaten public safety.
Union president Steve Williams maintains that staffing woes threaten public safety.

Jahnke and Green got separated. Green made it as far as the stairwell door before collapsing. In the impenetrable smoke, Jahnke strayed from the corridor and veered into the elevator lobby. He made a radio call for help.

When reinforcements finally made it to the fire floor, they found Captain Green near the stairwell door and delivered him to safety. The members of the rescue crew searched in the black smoke for Jahnke, nearly becoming trapped themselves. Jahnke, a father of two young children, could not be saved.

"Jay suffered a horrible death," says Hauck, in a voice as bracing as a blast of cold air. "When you get turned around in the dark and can't see your hand in front of your face and you're running out of air -- that's a bad thing."

The aftermath of October 13 apparently still haunts the survivors. A badly shaken Captain Green was on temporary leave from the department and could not be reached for comment. Firefighter Dan Matt declined comment, citing the pending investigation. Mike Phillips also could not be reached for comment.

Steve Williams, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, says there are too many factors in a high-rise fire to say unequivocally that a shortage of manpower caused the Four-Leaf tragedy.

"Was it the cause or a contributing factor in Captain Jahnke's death?" Williams asks. "It definitely played a role."

Hauck is less circumspect about the tragic six-alarm blaze.

"How many [firefighters] did you have on the fire floor? Two," he says, answering his own question. "That's why Jay Paul died, and that's the hard facts."

The death of Jay Paul Jahnke came at a time when sympathy for firefighters was visceral and raw, occurring in the wake of September's World Trade Center calamity, in which a staggering 343 firefighters died.

The Four-Leaf fire also occurred close enough to Election Day for both Mayor Lee Brown and Orlando Sanchez to respond with dramatic flourishes -- Brown launching a plan to put four firefighters per truck; Sanchez and his allies painting the mayor as a firefighter killer. These actions and accusations masked the fact that the fire department has faced a staffing crunch for years, one that has been allowed to fester under Brown's watch to the point of jeopardizing public safety.

Ironically, just days before Jahnke's death, a committee of HFD district chiefs presented a report to the mayor and City Council in which they laid bare their concerns about staffing shortages. The chiefs stated that more than 80 percent of the department's 120 engine and ladder trucks were riding below national standards, and warned, "[T]he quality of our service has been in a steady decline and we the district chiefs feel we are in a crisis."

The National Fire Protection Association, whose standards form the basis of fire laws and codes, calls for a minimum of four personnel per apparatus to increase safety and efficiency. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has a similar regulation. While not binding on municipalities -- many of which oppose being told how to address local safety issues -- these standards are frequently cited in lawsuits and used by legislators and labor departments to establish policy.

Engine companies pump and deliver water and perform basic firefighting duties, including search and rescue. Ladder companies perform varied tasks that include forcible entry, ventilation, laddering for rescues and salvage of material goods. Other major cities staff engines and ladders with a minimum of four firefighters, the district chiefs noted in their report. New York averages five firefighters per engine and six per ladder; Los Angeles, four and five, respectively. Dallas staffs its heavy apparatuses with an average of four firefighters.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated the February 2000 McDonald's fire that killed Houston firefighters Lewis Mayo and Kimberly Smith, whose three- person engine was the first to respond to that predawn inferno. In its recommendations, the institute cited the National Fire Protection Association's standard of four as a "minimum acceptable" staffing level for a fire company. Those recommended levels increase to five per engine and six per ladder for fires in "high-risk areas." District 8 Fire Chief Matt Stuckey says that a high-rise qualifies as such an area.

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