It was 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 27: more than 18 hours since Harvey's heavy rains first began, three and a half hours since Harris County Judge Ed Emmett asked private citizens who owned boats to volunteer for rescues, two and a half hours since Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered that all essential city employees report for duty.
But at this time, the Houston Fire Department had a different message for the roughly 3,000 firefighters — three quarters of the total department — who were not officially on duty: Stay home.
"In response today's recent email [sic] 'Mayor’s Directive to All Employees Regarding Inclement Weather 8/27/2017' we have had firefighters reporting to stations who are not scheduled to work," an HFD administrative assistant wrote to all employees. "Firefighters who are not scheduled to work are asked to refrain from coming into the station unless otherwise notified by HFD Command. Be safe! Thank you!"
The order had come from up top, from Fire Chief Samuel Peña, as first reported by USA Today and its local affiliate, KHOU. To many of the HFD firefighters well aware of the chaos and tragedy unfolding in their neighborhoods and all across the city, amid the worst flood-producing disaster in U.S. history, it was puzzling. It was an order they were not inclined to follow.
Thanks to HFD's utterly ill-conceived Harvey response plans, a giant chunk of the fire department was left to its own devices as countless firefighters got in the water anyway, on private boats, to help with the rescues, according to the firefighters union, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. For days, there was no official directive for the off-duty firefighters. It was not until Tuesday, August 29, that an additional shift was recalled to duty, long after many of the most harrowing rescues and the most torrential rains were over.
"We have to prepare for the worst, and that’s not what happened," said HPFFA President Patrick "Marty" Lancton. "The reality is, I don’t think anybody didn’t know that, at minimum, this was going to be a significant flooding event, and at worst, what it was: a catastrophic flooding event. It is far easier to release people if you don’t need them than need them and not have them."
Lancton was among the countless off-duty firefighters who hopped on a private boat, owned by a captain at HFD Station 51, to start rescuing people and ferrying them to dry land. Two of the first Houstonians they found stranded inside their flooded home were an elderly woman and her grandson. They were among an estimated 75 to 100 people the off-duty fire crew rescued that day.
Officially, roughly 900 firefighters were on duty on August 27, with just a few crews called in to work overtime, according to HFD's Incident Action Plan for Hurricane Harvey, obtained by the Houston Press. The plan notes that HFD has on hand ten flat-bottom evacuation boats (which were staffed by crews who normally staff the fire engines, leaving many firetrucks unmanned); six rescue boats (which were staffed by three overtime crews and three regular crews); and a single high-water rescue vehicle, staffed by an overtime crew.
However, according to an email from an HFD rescue crew member — provided to the Press by Lancton, who said the rescuer asked to remain anonymous — the lack of additional personnel meant that three rescue trucks were left in the garage.
Because the Incident Action Plan did not plan how the fire department would staff the ten dump trucks provided by the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department for use in high-water rescues, Lancton said, the firefighters largely improvised that plan.
And because of the lack of additional personnel, the on-duty firefighters were not relieved until after working two to five days straight.
"We’ve been sounding the alarm for an incredibly long time, dealing with the fire department in the City of Houston not being adequate for this very reason," Lancton said. "We’ve seen the flooding events from Tax Day and Memorial Day floods, and we still didn’t learn from that. At minimum, the firefighters — and there’s 4,000 of us — we have boats and high-water vehicles of our own. We would at least want to utilize the people who are trained so we don’t put unnecessary risk upon the heroic citizens who went out there. That was the concern of ours: You don’t want a rescuer to turn into a victim."
"This should never happen again," he added. "And it should never happen in an instance where you have the third-largest fire department in the nation not prepared."
Chief Samuel Peña has provided minimal explanations as to why he did not deploy more HFD staff at the height of the emergency or even before Harvey hit. The department's public information officers did not return our calls requesting an interview with Peña, but he told USA Today that he decided not to put out the recall for all of HFD's 4,000 firefighters because he did not want to unnecessarily imperil them. He told the newspaper that not having more rescue boats, trucks and other resources for additional firefighters to use was a key reason he did not ask them to come in: Most would only be able to relieve currently on-duty firefighters — not necessarily join them, he said.
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“With the conditions we were facing, do we expose our people to that, knowing that even if they were able to get in, it would be very difficult to deploy them to different areas?” he said. “We saw what we had and decided to keep the one shift.”
The HFD rescue crew member, however, pushed back on Peña's assessment, saying that the relief would have been welcomed among exhausted firefighters, and that if Peña was concerned about firefighters facing risks as the floods became dangerous, he should have had them called in before the storm had already inundated Houston.
"Our members were heartbroken that they were told to stand down, and were willing to assume overwhelming risks to serve the citizens they are sworn to protect as they always do," he wrote.
Peña's executive assistant has scheduled the chief for an interview with the Press on Monday, and so we will have more information about Peña's justification then. The city finance department did not return a request for comment on whether the off-duty firefighters who still rescued people would be paid overtime. The mayor's office referred us to Peña.