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.

In comments to City Council on October 2, Stuckey warned that the department couldn't manage a high-rise fire with only three on a truck.

The problems created by undermanned apparatuses have had a ripple effect on the third-largest fire department in the country. HFD has some 3,700 uniformed and civilian employees in 87 fire stations and other facilities spread across more than 600 square miles of helter-skelter sprawl. With roughly 3,300 firefighters, the department is almost 600 short of being fully staffed, union officials say.

To compensate for understaffing, the department has had to dispatch more trucks to individual blazes. Williams, the union president, says that deploying the additional units may be a quick fix, but it actually slows the response times since companies have to travel farther to help.

And while out on these runs, the responding companies leave their own neighborhoods with a temporary dearth of emergency personnel. He adds that the department's overall shortages could be catastrophic in a terrorist attack.

A comprehensive study of HFD released in 2000 found response times increased steadily from 1995 to 1999 for engines, ladders and district chiefs. In some cases the response times had grown by more than a minute. The study, conducted by the TriData Corporation of Virginia, said that the exact source of the increases could not be pinpointed "but they may be caused at least in part by lower unit availability that results when the closest unit or units are often out on calls when the next call comes in."

HFD acknowledges the longer response times, citing a 4-1/2 percent increase department-wide in call volume every year for the last ten years. For certain stations in high-density areas, the increases were much higher. Engine No. 51, located at 6902 Bellaire Boulevard near Sharpstown Mall, saw calls soar to 4,667 in 2000 from 3,536 in 1996 -- an increase of 32 percent.

In a written statement, Captain Mike Nieto said that the greater call volume forces companies to respond to incidents out of their immediate area, "which may increase their response time."

Last year Houston saw a spike in fire fatalities. According to HFD there were 33 residential fire deaths in 2000, up from 20 the year before. The District Chiefs' Technical Advisory Committee, in its October report, put the numbers at 36 fire deaths for 2000 and 18 for 1999, a 100 percent increase.

While department officials argue that fatalities are "not the best indicator" of effectiveness, Williams is not so sure.

"Anytime you have reduced staffing… you're going to have a lack of efficient operations," he says.

The TriData report, commissioned by the city at a cost of $350,000, recommended staffing all engine, ladder and heavy rescue units with a minimum of four personnel.

Roughly three quarters of the department's workload is emergency medical services, and the number of cases has increased with the city's growing population. In the vast majority of EMS calls -- up 90 percent, according to some estimates -- the first responding unit is an engine or ladder truck. TriData indicated that the average amount of time it took the first unit to arrive at the scene of an "urgent" call was almost six minutes in 1999, up a full minute from 1994.

The TriData study also found that the department's then 62-ambulance fleet was overburdened. The majority of units exceeded the "very busy" threshold of more than 3,000 calls a year, and response times by advanced life support units to urgent calls had increased by nearly a minute. HFD figures show that two ambulance units actually crossed the 5,000-call threshold in 2000.

"There's too many calls and not enough ambulances. It's scary," says Manuel Chavez, a veteran paramedic. The department routinely goes into a mode called resource management dispatch, when most of the ambulances are in use, leaving only 25 or fewer for further calls across the city. This shortage of available units places an even greater burden on fire and engine trucks, which already respond to the vast majority of medical calls, Williams says.

The TriData report stated that for at least 12 hours each day, the department went into resource management dispatch. Since the report's release in October 2000, the city has added EMS vehicles, which appears to have helped reduce the amount of time in the critical resource management mode. Data for this past November show that the department slipped into resource management on 12 different days, never exceeding four and a half hours on any given day. However, there were still a total of five months in 2001 in which the department crossed the resource management threshold on 20 days or more, sometimes for longer than ten hours a day.

How the additional emergency medical vehicles, which include a fleet of bright red SUVs for paramedics, have affected response times remains unclear. Julissa Guerrero, a department spokeswoman, said that the department has not compiled an annual evaluation of EMS response times since the TriData report.

Houston firefighters are cross-trained in fire suppression and EMS. Stuckey, the district chief and high-rise expert, says that all training is based on the concept of four people on engine and ladder trucks.

"Every guideline we have is based on four-man crews," Stuckey says, calling teams of three a "deviation."

How the deviation became the norm is a tale of politics trumping public policy.

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