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.

"The police came up [for contract talks], and lo and behold [the administration] negotiated and signed and had money for a police contractual agreement," he says.

For her part, City Councilwoman Annise Parker, a Brown ally, criticizes union leaders for being inflexible, taking their case to the legislature and staging protests at City Hall instead of sticking to the bargaining table. Still, Parker believes both sides share responsibility for the stalemate, while the public has paid the price.

"In order to negotiate, you have to have people from both sides putting ideas in the hopper," she says. "The city is not well served allowing this issue to fester."

HFD blue blood Jay Jahnke was a 20-year veteran of the force.
HFD blue blood Jay Jahnke was a 20-year veteran of the force.

It took the death of a firefighter and a civilian for a breakthrough to finally occur. By that time the mutual distrust ran so high that any common ground was lost.

A teary-eyed Dawn Jahnke looked up from the pulpit at the sea of light blue shirts worn by the legion of firefighters who came to pay respects to a fallen comrade. Former president George Bush was among the dignitaries in attendance at the funeral service at Second Baptist Church on Woodway. The sprawling octagonal space with wooden pews on all sides of the pulpit and on two levels of balconies, seats roughly 6,000. On October 17 it was packed.

The thin, fine-featured widow spoke of a recent conversation with her husband.

"The other day I asked Jay how they can continue to allow the department to ride short," she said. "His response was simple: '…I guess someone is going to have to die before they get it.' "

The widow roused the men and women in uniform to their feet with an exhortation to effect change to prevent more deaths. Her words also captured the ear of the one man in the room with the power to make an immediate difference: Lee Brown.

That afternoon the mayor held a news conference to announce a plan, effective immediately, to put four people on each truck. Crafted by Fire Chief Chris Connealy, the plan relies heavily on overtime hours, at time and a half. Brown called for the use of water and sewer revenue to pay for the $17 million initiative. Under the plan, cadets have been pulled from the academy early to work as emergency medical technicians, replacing 180 cross-trained EMT/firefighters who have moved into fire suppression.

Far from appeasing firefighters, Brown's quick response whipped them into a lather. Williams, an intense Michigan native with the build of an offensive tackle, blasts the timing of the press conference as "disrespectful, irresponsible and insensitive." Coming on the day of Jahnke's funeral and less than a month before the election, it seemed like political opportunism at its cynical worst. Already firmly in the Sanchez camp, the union redoubled its efforts to get the former probation officer elected mayor.

Chief Connealy, in a written statement to the Press, said the staffing plan had been in the works since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the magnitude of which jolted the city into recognition that additional manpower would be needed to handle a similar event.

The plan's release was pushed up "due to the heightened emotions surrounding the death of Captain Jahnke and his wife's moving words at the funeral," Connealy said.

Councilwoman Parker says the vehement backlash against the mayor showed that he simply could not win with his critics.

Members of the Jahnke clan, including Dawn, assumed a very public role in supporting Sanchez. Behind the scenes, however, the family quietly came together as it has done many times in the past to mourn the loss of firefighting kin.

On this early November day, emissaries from the various branches of the extended Jahnke clan are gathered in the old-fashioned kitchen of a family matriarch to strategize for Thanksgiving. More than 75 people will attend the feast, making such planning essential.

The ladies sit at the rectangular table, ignoring for the time being the tuna, deviled eggs and little hot dogs with toothpicks through their middles while they powwow. The menfolk occupy a line of chairs a few feet back, and silently take in the proceedings. It's mostly an older crowd -- septuagenarians and above -- with a few notable exceptions, including Judy Norton, who presides.

"Would you be able to do green beans, or would you rather do cranberry sauce?" she asks an aunt. The conversation then turns to the all-important subject of turkeys.

"I don't think we're going to need four turkeys," says one.

"Let's do two turkeys and more ham," another chimes in.

Decked out in a denim vest, jeans and broad smile, the fortysomething Norton orchestrates these deliberations with conductorlike ease, all the while fielding a barrage of one-liners and inside jokes. The chipper air about the room belies the fact that each person here has lived with fire-related tragedies as a fact of life, Jay Jahnke's death being the last in a long line. Norton lost her own dad, a highly respected district chief named Lonnie Franklin, in 1983. He was headed to a fire when his car was broadsided by a young motorist who ran a stop sign. The accident happened on the day he announced his retirement.

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