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Houston Fire Dept. receives surge of donations to expand rescue fleet

The donations come as the department waits for bond money that voters approved, which won’t be available until next year

By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The Houston Fire Department, which struggled to rescue stranded residents during flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey because of a lack of resources, has gotten an unexpected surge of donations recently to help augment its rescue fleet.

The donations come as the department waits for bond money that voters approved, which won’t be available until next year.

The latest boost came Thursday night, when City Councilmember Brenda Stardig and the Firefighters Foundation of Houston presented the department with a $52,000 check -- enough for two additional swiftwater rescue boats.

“I hope my colleagues join with us to add more boats around the city,” said Stardig, who represents District A and chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. She announced the donations at her district’s give-back holiday party, which was held at a local brewery and attended by hundreds of constituents and first-responders.

After Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of the Houston area, causing dozens of deaths and damaging thousands of properties, a Chronicle investigation found a glaring lack of resources in the fire department’s boat fleet hampered rescue efforts.

At the time, the department’s high-water rescue fleet had 10 shallow-water evacuation boats, six swift-water Zodiac rescue boats, several inflatable dinghies, four functional jet skis and one high-water rescue vehicle.

On Thursday, Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña thanked Stardig and the Firefighters Foundation of Houston for raising funds to buy additional boats.

“It’s going to better prepare the Houston Fire Department, the primary rescue agency in this area, to have a better response profile,” he said.

Peña has asked the city council for $2.7 million to bolster the department’s water-rescue resources, firefighter training and maintenance.

“We know the anticipated risk in this community,” he said after the storm. “We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

HFD has received other donations in recent months.

Since Harvey, the department has obtained two additional high-water rescue vehicles through private donations, as well as funds for several more boats and other equipment, according to Assistant Chief Ruy Lozano. The department was working to prioritize how to use the donations, he said.

Lozano said he’d also received commitments from two city council members to fund two additional evacuation boats and a high-water rescue vehicle.

Peña previously told city council that he needed eight high-water rescue vehicles, 20 evacuation boats, four swiftwater rescue boats, and four more power skis for the department’s water rescue fleet.

Before the Thursday evening event, Lee Vela, chairman of the Firefighters Foundation of Houston, thanked HEB and Metro National, which contributed more than $20,000 of the $52,000 raised that evening.

“We all have to step up and help with these things,” Vela said. “Harvey underscored that the department needs more emergency rescue equipment, that’s our focus currently.”

A representative from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 called the acquisition of the high-water rescue vehicles and the possibility of obtaining more boats “great news.”

“Those high-water rescue vehicles are going to be a big help if there’s another Harvey-type event,” said the association’s Luke Manion. “The types of boats purchased and training that goes with it ... all of that needs to be considered.”

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