Fire Chief Samuel Peña during an interview with reporters earlier this year.
Fire Chief Samuel Peña during an interview with reporters earlier this year.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Houston Fire Chief Defends Keeping Thousands of Firefighters Off Duty During Harvey

Following a barrage of criticism lobbed at the Houston Fire Department over its response to Hurricane Harvey, Chief Samuel Peña explained in detail to the Houston Press Monday morning why he did not recall all or even most firefighters to duty as Harvey inundated the city.

Ahead of Harvey, just one-quarter of HFD’s force was officially slated for duty — with several overtime crews staffing the department's single high-water rescue boat and three of its six rescue boats (regular staff filled the other three boats). On the afternoon of Sunday, August 27, an email from an HFD administrative employee had gone out asking that all firefighters who weren’t scheduled to work — which was approximately 3,000 of them — “refrain from coming into the station” unless they were specifically asked to report. It had gone out hours after Harris County Judge Ed Emmett asked civilians who own boats to assist with rescues, and after Mayor Sylvester Turner asked all essential city employees to report to duty.

Many of the 3,000 other off-duty firefighters, the firefighters union and HFD have said, got in the water anyway, hopping on private civilian craft or boats of their own to assist in the rescue efforts — in fact, Executive Assistant Fire Chief Richard Mann, who also attended the interview, said he anticipates that every one of them did this.

So why weren’t they officially called in?

According to Chief Peña, it was a matter of resources — of physical equipment in the department’s arsenal.

“We staffed everything we have available,” Peña said. “The optics is, if I recall 3,000 extra firefighters, we would have extra capacity for rescues. Well, that’s not the case. Our mission requires adequate and reliable equipment to be able to deploy, effect whatever mission we’re sent on, and return back in service. If we don’t have the apparatus and the equipment and the right trained personnel, we’re not operational.”

Of HFD’s ten evacuation boats, six rescue boats and its single high-water rescue vehicle, Peña said all of them were staffed in anticipation of Harvey. In fact, the high-water rescue vehicle was purchased with Councilwoman Brenda Stardig’s service funds for District A just this summer and was finally ready to be deployed on August 25 — a day before Harvey hit, which Stardig called a blessing. Prior to that there were only high-water dump trucks. Peña said that beyond not having more boats and vehicles for firefighters to staff, he did not call in more firefighters for a couple key reasons: Given 70 percent of HFD lives outside city limits, he said it would have been impossible for them to make it to fire stations Sunday because roads were impassable. And even if they did make it, not only would there be a lack of boats to put them on, but they would have been untrained in high-water rescues.

Peña said that criticism of HFD’s response to the Memorial Day floods of 2015 played a key role in how the command staff developed the Harvey Incident Action Plan. Controversy had enveloped the department after a boat capsized during a Memorial Day rescue operation and three civilians in the boat died, prompting an internal review of the department’s response. Among the findings were that firefighters responding to the floods had inadequate or even no training to handle hazardous swift waters, and that, to free up more boats, fewer firefighters manned each boat, compromising safety. They were mistakes that Peña said the department was not inclined to repeat. Just 250 firefighters are trained in swift-water operations, Mann said, and the department has been vying for more funding to train and certify more personnel in this area.

Yet despite encountering three disastrous floods in as many years, the department has remained in the same position: woefully lacking adequate equipment and funding to train and certify more firefighters to respond to major flooding events, Peña said.

“This is something we’ve been dealing with historically,” Peña said. “As a municipality, we have to invest in preparation for what is expected. These types of incidents are gonna happen again. And even if it’s just the areas that historically flood, at this point, we’re not adequately staffed and don’t have adequate assets even to respond to the expected,” let alone Harvey, the extraordinary, he said.

“It’s irresponsible of us to say, we’ll just put anybody in these rescue boats without the proper equipment, without the proper training, without the proper communications, and expect them to function as a professional organization," he added.

The union, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, has pushed back on the HFD command staff’s decision not to recall all or more firefighters amid Harvey’s destruction. President Marty Lancton — among the countless off-duty firefighters who helped with rescues anyway — said that it was problematic that the department did not anticipate needing additional personnel to relieve the single shift of 800 to 900 firefighters so they could have a break from the overwhelming amount of rescue calls. In fact, fatigued firefighters and overworked rescue crews was also among the criticisms of HFD’s Memorial Day response, according to the internal review.

While the command staff said it was impossible to call more firefighters in Sunday, Lancton pressed that they should have been on hand in advance.

“The problem was, once the rain starts, if you don’t have the recall for your members there, now you have to deal with people not being able to go home because they live all over the city, and then people couldn’t come in,” Lancton said. “That’s why you prepare for this. That’s why you do this in advance. That’s why you have the necessary members to give the rescuers a brief break.”

An additional shift was not recalled until Tuesday, when conditions were safer for travel and the worst was over. Asked if he regretted not having the additional shift prepared in advance, Peña said the stations were already at capacity, with additional state and federal crews plus public works personnel already working out of them. He added it is not unusual for firefighters to work three consecutive 24-hour shifts in extreme circumstances — this is what they have been trained to do.

“The fact that Sunday morning caused an environment in which roads weren’t passable, the contingency plan was to do what we did: to hold the people that we had on duty, and move on with the shift," he said.

Despite the discord, there is at least one thing that seemingly everyone within city government can agree on: that the fire department’s need for more resources cannot be kicked down the road any longer. Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Press in a statement that he did not play a role in HFD’s response plans for Harvey, leaving emergency response to the chiefs — but that this need for additional resources was clear to him.

“With regard to Harvey, every rescue apparatus owned by the City was deployed and used and more high water rescue trucks and boats were requested from outside sources and fully utilized. There is no question that the City is in need of more high water rescue assets and we have stated that many times over the last year,” Turner said.

Turner in the past and Chief Peña on Monday have decried the city’s revenue cap, limiting how much tax revenue the city can collect to put toward essential public-safety services. Peña said it was like a "noose" around his department. On a $495 million bond package set for the ballot this fall, HFD is set to receive $54 million to replace its aging fleet — but Peña and Lancton said they needed much more than that, especially considering six firetrucks were lost to Harvey. (Peña said that's what happens when the department tries to use its firetrucks in high water, which they weren't designed to withstand). Peña said he would like to see a long-term plan developed so the department can replace at least 8 to 10 percent of the fleet every year, ensuring that no HFD vehicles become too run down to operate.

At the very minimum, high-water vehicles shouldn't be too difficult to secure: Stardig said the single high-water rescue vehicle she purchased with constituent service funds cost just $48,000, making it all the more perplexing why the city has not found in its budget more space to purchase these crucial vehicles, perhaps even in spite of that cap.

Stardig said buying the high-water vehicle for her district appeared to her a no-brainer, and hoped other council members might take the same opportunity to use the funds for this purpose. The HFD crew who staffed the vehicle, Stardig said, told her they used it to save dozens, if not hundreds, of people.

“You don’t go to a fire without an apparatus and a hose and water. How do you expect our firefighters to go rescue folks without having a boat or a high-water rescue vehicle?” she said. “How many more of our [firetruck] apparatuses do we have to sacrifice before we recognize the fact that these less expensive vehicles are available?”

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