Houston votes to spend $2M on fire dept. highwater rescue vehicles, boats

The purchase comes six months after Hurricane Harvey's flooding, which exposed glaring inadequacies in the Houston Fire Department's high-water rescue fleet

By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The Houston city council voted Wednesday to spend $2 million to purchase dozens of new boats, trucks and other rescue equipment for use by firefighters to help deal with future flooding.

The purchase comes six months after Hurricane Harvey's flooding, which exposed glaring inadequacies in the Houston Fire Department's high-water rescue fleet.

Under the proposal, the city will spend $2 million on a package that includes six "deuce-and-a-halfs," or high water rescue vehicles capable of driving through flooded areas, at a cost of $75,000 each.

The council also voted to buy four rescue boats suited for use in swift water, and 10 "evacuation boats," meant for moving people through calmer waters.

"The whole goal is to have more assets available," Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Fire Chief Samuel Peña said the proposal was an investment in Houston's resiliency in the future.

"With the acquisition of the requested high water assets and training funds, the HFD will be better prepared to address the normally expected flood evacuation and rescue risk in our community," he said, in advance of the vote.

Assistant Chief Ruy Lozano called the vote "a good day for the city of Houston."

"We will continue to flood," he said. "We need to have the assets ready, and our members trained (for future floods)."

The funding also covers the purchase of boat trailers and 10 pick-up trucks for hauling the boats, along with 100 personal flotation devices, and four "wave runners," a type of Jetski.

Representatives for rank-and-file firefighters also cheered the proposal to bulk up HFD's rescue equipment.

"This is welcome news," said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, in advance of the vote. "We're relieved this issue is being addressed — for the safety of the people we serve and for firefighters on the job."

RELATED: Harvey laid bare lack of resources, training at Houston Fire Department

A Chronicle investigation found that when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, the fire department had just one high-water rescue vehicle, decrepit rescue boats and decades-old evacuation boats.

Firefighters rescued residents using the city's dump trucks or their fire engines, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece. At the time the department's high-water rescue fleet included 10 shallow-water evacuation boats, six swift-water Zodiac rescue boats, several inflatable dinghies, four functional wave runners.

Peña: Lack of HFD investment puts residents, firefighters at risk

In the wake of the flooding, Peña said Hurricane Harvey had shown how anemic the department's flood rescue resources were.

"No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey," he told the Chronicle in an interview soon after the storm. "But ... we don't have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community."

As Harvey's floodwaters receded, firefighters excoriated city leaders for ignoring warnings about the need for better equipment and training after the Memorial Day flood of 2015 and the 2016 Tax Day floods.

Apart from the items covered in the council's proposal, HFD has also received private donations and pledges of three additional high-water rescue vehicles, six evacuation boats and two swift-water rescue boats.

The proposed city purchases would help double the number of swift-water and evacuation boats. Peña said he wanted enough resources to be able to station high-water rescue trucks across the city.

Copyright 2018 Houston Chronicle

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