On Tuesday, Houston's fire chief Terry Garrison announced he is stepping down. According to a press release, Garrison is headed back to his hometown of Glendale, Arizona, where he will start as the city's new fire chief in early November. In his five-year tenure atop HFD, Garrison brought about sweeping changes— some were good, some bad, depending on who you ask. But Garrison might be remembered most for the things that went horribly wrong under his watch.
Three months ago, there was the Memorial Day flood. HFD was outmatched and overwhelmed, and experienced what amounted to a complete systemic failure. The department had not trained its rescue teams in swift waters, could not access boats in flooded areas of the city, used boats with leaks and rips and other malfunctions, didn't have enough life jackets (and the few that were available for victims were not made for swift waters), and generally struggled to coordinate its rescues while working with limited resources. In a tragic moment the morning after Memorial Day, three citizens drowned to death after their rescue boat capsized. Garrison is stepping down before HFD has released its internal review of the department's response to the flood.
Two years ago, there was the Southwest Freeway fire. The deadliest day in HFD's history claimed the lives of four firefighters— Robert Bebee, Robert Garner, Matthew Renaud, and Anne Sullivan—and injured 16 more after part of a smoldering hotel complex along the Southwest Freeway collapsed. In July, the Center for Disease Control released a 106-page report criticizing the department for lacking preparedness for wind-driven fires, having poor radio communications and using breathing apparatuses that melted in high heat. The report also mentioned HFD's internal review of the incident, which had recommended changes of its own. But the department recently faced criticism from the local firefighter's union for allegedly having failed to implement many of the changes recommended in the original internal report.
Four years ago, there was Rebecca Woodruff. The 4-year old girl's mother accidentally ran her over in the driveway of their Kingwood home, but when the mother called 911, a firetruck responded before an ambulance was called, following the guidelines of Garrison's "All Hazards Response" program. The sweeping change in the city's emergency response protocol was brought about by Garrison shortly after he was hired, and required the nearest fire engine or ladder truck to respond to all non-life-threatening emergency calls, where they would then determine on scene whether an ambulance needed to be called. An hour passed before Woodruff reached the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Although Garrison maintained that his system did not play a role in the child's death, critics claimed the response program endangered the public and exhausted the fire department's aging fleet. According to the Houston Chronicle, Woodruff's death sparked immediate revisions to the program and a departmental review, though it appears as though that review was never released to the public.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"His legacy is All Hazards Response, which in our eyes has not been a success because it's made our fleet a mess," Alvin White, president of the local firefighters union, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said in a phone interview. "He came in to this department with the perspective of someone who was on the outside looking in and made sweeping changes, including making our command staff more diverse than it's ever been. But we will always remember him for All Hazards Response. We wish him and his family the best of luck in Arizona, and we are looking forward to seeing who the mayor appoints in the interim."
Throughout his tenure, Garrison had a rocky relationship with the fire fighter's union, largely due to his precarious position balancing city hall's budgetary concerns with the needs of his department's firefighters. In February 2014, the union filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Houston and Garrison after the fire chief ordered some emergency vehicles to be taken out of service to curtail costs of overtime spending, which had spiraled out of control before Garrison arrived and continued to be a problem during his time as chief. And in July, Garrison dismissed criticism of the department's response to the Memorial Day flood— criticism which came mostly from the union and the department's own internal reports—as "rhetoric."
Garrison began his career in Phoenix, Arizona, where he served in the city's fire department for 30 years, eventually rising to assistant fire chief. He was hired by Mayor Annise Parker in September, 2010. The hiring was a bit of a surprise—in a press conference, Parker touted Garrison as someone who would take the department in a "new direction," but KHOU reported that others felt Garrison was an outsider and wondered whether he was right for the job. According to the Chronicle, Garrison told the Mayor he'd only stick around for five years, but in November 2013, he announced he was stepping down to move back to Arizona to care for his young grandson. However, he eventually decided to stay, and stuck it out for a few more years. His last day on the job will be October 31.
“I have enjoyed my time here in Houston and will always remember the culture and embrace my family and I received in this vibrant city," Garrison, 57, said in a press release. "The HFD is a robust organization with very capable members. Whoever my successor is, I am confident that they will continue to strive to provide the highest degree of customer service to the citizens of Houston, while providing for the safety of firefighters.”