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As captain of the first engine to arrive at the Four-Leaf Towers before dawn on October 13, Jay Paul Jahnke had to make a tough call. Flames engulfed a fifth-floor corner apartment in the west tower and pitched wildly in the blustery air, hungrily lapping at the floors above.
Startled residents, awakened rudely from their slumbers, were filing out of the deluxe 40-story high-rise into the wind and rain. Some spoke ominously of people who might still be trapped. Four other engines and three ladder trucks were speeding toward the scene but had yet to arrive. Jahnke's truck had only three men, including himself, although industry standards call for a minimum of four to begin the initial stages of attack on a structural fire.
Should he get to work on the blaze or wait for backup while the inferno spread?
Jahnke's dilemma was one faced by many Houston Fire Department personnel in recent years as scant resources and political dogfights have made three-person crews on engine and ladder trucks the norm.
A 20-year veteran, Jahnke was not one to sit around while an apartment tower burned. After calling for a second alarm, the 40-year-old captain, a scion of one of Houston's legendary firefighting families, did what came naturally: He loaded up with the heavy gear and headed into the building.
Standard procedure for an engine company calls for the driver to remain with the vehicle to pump water. That left Jahnke, a fresh-faced fellow with sandy hair and a workingman's mustache, and a lone fireman named Mike Phillips to launch the assault on the fire.
What exactly happened in the ferocious battle that ensued remains under investigation, the results of which may not be made public for months. However, the tight-knit community of firefighters doesn't need a drawn-out probe to reach certain conclusions about the debacle at the Galleria-area high-rise. Accounts from people at the scene allow a picture of events to emerge.
Weighted down by fire-resistant suits, helmets, radios and other equipment, Jahnke and Phillips would have had to make critical decisions about what to carry with them. They would have needed air packs, axes and other forcible entry tools. The hose presented a question. One person familiar with the scene says that they opted to use a one-and-three-quarters-inch hose rather than the heavier two-and-a-half-inch. If that's true, says Matt Stuckey, a district chief who wrote department guidelines for high-rise fires, they would have been handicapped from the get-go because the larger hose sprays more than twice the water.
Already saddled with a heavy load, the men were unable to carry extra air bottles in the event that their roughly 20-minute supplies ran out, firefighters familiar with the episode say.
Records of radio transmissions indicate that Jahnke was in the building at 5:01 a.m., 13 minutes after the first alarm sounded and eight minutes after his company from Station 2 arrived at 5100 San Felipe.
He and Phillips clanked up the narrow metal staircase, passing residents who were hurrying down. Somewhere along the way -- either in the stairwell or on the fire floor itself -- they reportedly encountered a traumatized woman from the apartment where the fire started. The woman, Melina Bible Cain, had witnessed her husband, 38-year-old Charles Harrison Dill, in flames before he died.
At the fifth floor, the firemen exited through a small vestibule and into the hallway, where the apartments stood two on each end, bisected by the elevator lobby, which veered off to the right. The burning unit was to their right all the way at the end of the hall.
Jahnke was concerned about the shortage of manpower. The first alarm meant five engines and three ladders. Of those, according to fire department officials, only two of the engines had four people.
At 5:02 Jahnke radioed to the incident commander on the ground, asking about the whereabouts of his backup on the fire floor. The backup unit allegedly was delayed because it went to the wrong floor.
Jahnke and the three others entered the burning apartment without the reinforcements, encountering an inferno that consumed much of the dwelling. They turned their one-and-three-quarters-inch hose on the blaze, "hitting the lick" with some 100 gallons of water per minute. With full staffing, the captains would have had an opportunity to quarterback the effort behind the advance of their crew. Shorthanded, they would have had to be more active in front-line suppression and less able to orchestrate the action, says Ed Hauck, a senior captain who recently retired after 32 years with the department.
Air packs allow firefighters to breathe clean air even in the most smoke-clogged settings. Thirty-minute bottles, however, do not necessarily yield a 30-minute supply. In the heat of battle, when exertion and nerves run high, a firefighter can suck up the air in half the time, Stuckey says. It wasn't long before the men in the blistering conflagration found their supplies growing low. Since they had been unable to carry extra bottles with them, Phillips and Matt reportedly went to fetch more air from below, leaving the captains with the fire.
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.
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.
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.
For as far back as he can remember, Duke Jahnke says, HFD has tried to staff fire trucks with crews of four. The 67-year-old entered the department in 1955 and rose to the rank of assistant chief before retiring in 1995. Jay Jahnke was his nephew.
"We tried to maintain four on an engine company and four on a ladder company too," he says, recalling his four decades in the department.
Since 1984, HFD has had a policy of assigning crews of four to both engine and ladder trucks. Attaining that goal, however, has been easier said than done. Many blame the bust years of the 1980s with setting in motion chronic staffing woes. During those days of budget cuts by the Kathy Whitmire administration, the fire department could not escape the guillotine. The academy was shut down; retiring firefighters were not replaced. With- out the regular infusion of young recruits, the department aged and its numbers dwindled by more than 300 to 2,900 firefighters.
In 1993 the Texas legislature passed a measure giving municipalities and their fire, police and other departments the power to negotiate wages and working conditions. Whitmire's successor, Bob Lanier, tackled staffing shortfalls with an overtime program hammered out in 1995 talks with the local union. The two sides agreed on the creation of a program that would enable firefighters to work up to 53 hours for straight pay. Previously, they received overtime pay after 46.7 hours, but the amount of overtime was restricted by budget constraints. Lanier's "extraboard" program, intended as a fix while the city hired more firefighters, was overwhelmingly supported by union members, many of whom worked second jobs and saw it as an opportunity to boost their incomes.
The program enabled the majority of trucks to carry crews of four.
Extraboard "was good for the firefighters and for the city," says Lonnie Vara, the human resources director for the city.
The program was renewed in the 1997 contract. That agreement also explicitly addressed the staffing issue, stating that the city would "endeavor" to put four-member crews on all engine and ladder trucks contingent upon available funding.
With negotiations for a new contract set to commence in 1999, union officials were adamant as ever that trucks be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters. But they changed their stance toward extraboard. New hires had dwindled because of cuts in academy classes, making the department more dependent than ever on extraboard's straight-time overtime scheme. The union now demanded time-and-a-half pay for overtime.
"No other department in the city works overtime hours at a straight- pay rate," says Jeff Cook, a fire captain and union leader, summarizing Local 341's position.
Brown administration officials agreed with the staffing goals but argued that they couldn't be met without extraboard.
The contract talks were marred by accusations from each side that the other was not negotiating in good faith. Talks completely broke down in mid-May 2000, a month before the old contract was to expire. From that point the city stopped funding extraboard, triggering a sharp increase in the number of shorthanded apparatuses. The majority of engine and ladder trucks, sometimes more than two-thirds, now ran with only three people.
During the 2001 legislative session, area lawmakers got into the act. Senator Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, introduced legislation to require Houston to staff fire trucks with crews of four, a measure sponsored by Representative Rick Noriega, D-Houston, in the House. City officials argued they could not afford the estimated $40 million it would take to achieve those staffing goals without drastic cuts to other municipal services.
Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, tried to jump-start talks between the city and firefighters, going as far as bringing delegates from both sides together in his office to work out differences. By that time the two camps regarded each other with a wariness typically found between warring Middle Eastern factions.
Under pressure from lawmakers, Brown submitted a $68 million plan in April 2000 to achieve staffing goals within six years. The ambitious plan provided for 300 new hires annually through additional academy classes and called for the continuation of straight-time overtime in the short term, with gradual increases in overtime pay. To fund its initiative, the administration proposed rescinding a one-cent property tax rollback, a move that required approval from City Council.
Union officials deemed the plan's straight-time pay system "unacceptable." Lawmakers like Gallegos said it didn't go far enough toward remedying manpower shortfalls. Without the necessary support, Brown scrapped the initiative. Meanwhile, the bills filed by area lawmakers got held up in their respective committees. The legislative session ended with matters still at an impasse.
Today, Gallegos, a 22-year veteran of the fire department before entering the political arena, adopts a diplomatic tone when discussing the deadlock. He blames it ambiguously on "money."
"Whenever we're talking manpower, we're talking money," he says.
The issue has divided City Council along ideological lines. Orlando Sanchez has been sharply critical of the Brown administration's handling of the fire department, and made the staffing question a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign. Other conservatives such as Bruce Tatro say that Brown, a former police chief, created ill will with firefighters by giving preferential treatment to police.
"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."
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.
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.
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.