Burning Grief

An earlier photo shows Duke Jahnke (center) with firefighting relatives. Jay Jahnke is the second man seated to the right of Duke.

Duke Jahnke did not expect the death of his fire captain nephew to turn into political hay -- at least not on the very day of Jay P. Jahnke's funeral. During the October 17 service, the firefighter's widow told more than 5,000 mourners in unequivocal terms that insufficient staffing had contributed to her husband's death in a high-rise blaze. But her arguments were not new: Firefighters had been clamoring for years for more personnel, constantly encountering brick walls because of budgetary restrictions.

As she eulogized her husband, Dawn Jahnke spoke as a grief-stricken woman when she made her appeal, Duke Jahnke says. She was not making a call for hasty action.

Jahnke, an assistant fire chief who retired after 40 years with the department, was surprised when Mayor Lee Brown held a news conference later that day to announce plans to put more personnel on fire trucks. His surprise turned to outrage when he learned that the plan would temporarily derail the dreams of two of his grandsons and further upset the family.

"It more than annoys me," he says.

In recent years, Houston fire trucks have been staffed by an average of only three firefighters, not the four recommended by the National Fire Protection Association and other agencies. Brown's $16 million strategy to add a fourth firefighter on all pumper and ladder trucks -- a plan crafted with Fire Chief Chris Connealy -- depends largely on crews working substantial amounts of overtime.

In addition, 180 firefighters who served as emergency medical technicians have been returned to active firefighting duty. They are being replaced by firefighting academy trainees who recently completed basic EMT training.

Duke Jahnke's twin grandsons, Clint and Keith Wedgeworth, were among those plucked from the academy. Houston firefighters are cross-trained in firefighting and EMT. The 21-year-old twins had intended to complete the full course of training, which lasts for several months. But the mayor's demand for immediate staffing pulled them and scores of others out of the academy after only weeks. Under the plan, they will return for firefighter training within two years. The abrupt turn of events, however, struck Duke Jahnke like a slap in the face.

He recalls bringing them to his fire station when they were just boys, and how they have always wanted to follow him, their own father and dozens of other relatives into the profession. They grew up in East Texas, but opted to go to college in Conroe with an eye toward joining the Houston Fire Department. Late this summer they began training at the HFD Val Jahnke Fire Training Academy, named for Duke's brother.

"That's all they ever wanted to be since they were little fellers," he says. The eyes of the robust 67-year-old begin welling with tears as he talks of the grandchildren.

But for Jahnke, the issue is more than flesh and blood. He says that "sending our recruits out of boot camp onto the front lines" compromises public safety. Officials at the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 make a similar argument. Association president Steve Williams says that of the more than 300,000 calls the fire department responds to annually, 70 percent are medical emergencies. He says it is a great public disservice to use inexperienced technicians to respond to victims of heart attacks, car accidents, shootings and a host of other critical situations.

"It's basically destroying the [standard of service] completely," Williams says.

"You're taking the position of the most responsibility and least supervision, and putting in guys with the least amount of training," agrees HFD Captain Jeff Cook.

Don Hollingsworth, the public safety adviser to Mayor Brown, says the concerns are unfounded. The department will dispatch qualified paramedics to the most serious cases, he says, adding that under no circumstances would a gravely injured person be left under the exclusive care of EMTs with only basic training.

Critics of the new staffing initiative fault the mayor and fire chief for not doing more to recruit fully trained firefighters. Such a strategy would solve the shortages more quickly while allowing cadets to complete their full training, Williams says.

"It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," he says of the current plan, calling for the department to embark on an all-out recruitment blitz.

Hollingsworth says that the department is indeed doing extensive recruitment. However, "it is not easy to recruit 400 firefighters," he says. He emphasizes that trainees who were pulled from the academy will return to complete their firefighter training within two years.

Duke Jahnke has his doubts. He believes Brown's initiative reeks of politics -- a "Band-Aid" placed over Jay Jahnke's death.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >