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.

For 89-year-old Louise Jahnke, full-faced and hale at one end of the table, the first bitter blow came in 1929. Her father was en route to a fire when a train struck his horse-drawn engine. He died eight days later. Her brother Johnny Little Jr. did not let the incident sour him on the profession. Instead, he went on to become chief of the department.

It was the Littles who first steered the Jahnke family into firefighting. Louise's late husband, Val Jahnke, worked as a train conductor. But firefighting seemed to offer a more stable source of income in those tight Depression years, and he joined the force in 1940.

"He needed to make a living," Louise says.

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.

Val Jahnke blazed a path that three of his 11 siblings -- brothers Claude, Roe and Duke -- followed. Each rose to the highest ranks of the department in careers that spanned decades. New generations have entered the fold, bringing the number of kin presently in the department to more than a dozen. The training academy for cadets is named for Val.

"These are some of the best, most respected people in the whole fire department," says Captain Jeff Cook. "These are some of the firefighters' heroes."

The Thanksgiving planning has given way to talk of who will play Santa at this year's Christmas gathering. But one woman at the table sits weeping silently. This is Kay Jahnke, Claude's widow and Jay Paul's mother. It's less than a month since her boy died, and the grief stings. She is wearing a T-shirt that reads, "In memory of Jay P. Jahnke."

Kay still hits these rough patches. Yet she is tough. At her son's funeral, she offered strong words of encouragement to a young member of the family in training to become a firefighter: "Don't let this thin your blood," she told him.

Today, the average firefighter is approximately 45. Nearly half the department is eligible for retirement. Roughly 400 cadets have graduated since 1998, but attrition continues to diminish the ranks. By most calculations, HFD is still down by more than 500 people.

Brown's public safety adviser, Don Hollingsworth, says the current plan, put into effect after Jay Jahnke's death, will provide a temporary staffing fix while new hires gradually reverse attrition. Others are less sure.

"Things are just going to get worse here," says Cook, despondent over Orlando Sanchez's loss. "We're pretty much screwed."

The ability to attract new recruits is the fire department's one hope of digging itself out of the staffing hole. And the Jahnke family continues to do more than its share. Among the cadets who entered the academy this summer were Clint and Keith Wedgeworth, Duke Jahnke's grandsons. The 21-year-old twins were still in the Val Jahnke Fire Training Academy when their cousin Jay died. Keith, a polite, good-natured fellow, recalls his instructor asking if he wanted to say something to the class in the sad aftermath.

The lean young man stood up and told his peers that the faint of heart should find another line of work.

"I don't want you there if you can't handle the fact that you might not come out," he said.

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