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Chief: Lack of Houston Fire Department investments puts city at risk

Chief Sam Pena said HFD must double its spending on engines, ladders and ambulances, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatus and the training


By Mike Morris
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Fire Chief Sam Pena gave City Council a bleak assessment Tuesday of his department's readiness to respond to significant rainstorms, or even daily fire and medical calls, saying a ramshackle fleet and inadequate training are putting the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The Houston Fire Department must double its annual spending on new engines, ladders and ambulances, the chief said, and must ramp up its purchases of water rescue apparatus and the training.

The department has a "moral and legal" duty, Pena said, to provide safe and effective vehicles and equipment to its 4,100 firefighters and the residents they serve.

Instead, he said, engines are catching fire on the scene or at stations; one dropped a gas tank en route to a call. Another time, he said, an ambulance broke down while carrying a cardiac patient to a hospital. Reserve vehicles have to stand in for broken-down front-line apparatus 85 percent of the time, he said.

"We haven't allocated the right resources to ensure we're preparing our firefighters to do the job we're asking them to do," said Pena, who became chief last December. "What Harvey put a spotlight on is the lack of resources that we've had, but it's a reality that we're living as a department every day. We have to make a decision about what we want our fire department to do and what we're willing to fund."

The presentation to council represented Pena's most extensive comments on HFD resources since the department's response to Hurricane Harvey came under heavy criticism from firefighters and union officials, who complained of staffing and equipment shortages during the storm.

The Houston Chronicle reported late last month that the department had failed to act on recommendations contained in scathing internal assessments following the Memorial Day flood in 2015 and the Tax Day flood last year. Much of the blame was put on City Hall for not fulfilling budget requests for equipment and training.

Shortcomings exposed

Pena defended the department's actions during Harvey, but acknowledged the storm and the resulting floods had exposed shortcomings in the department's fleet and training.

On Tuesday, he told the council's public safety committee that HFD had received funding for 20 of the 47 engines it sought in the last three budget cycles. It also got 10 of 19 requested ladder or tower trucks, and 36 of 75 requested ambulances, he said.

The city has budgeted $5.5 million to $5.8 million in each of the next five years to purchase fire vehicles, but Pena said $11 million is needed annually to ensure HFD meets his recommendation of replacing 16 ambulances, nine engines and four ladder or tower trucks each year.

If voters pass the $495 million city bonds on the November ballot, officials said the department will get $10.8 million a year for five years to renew its fleet.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it has been evident since he took office that HFD - along with police and city trash haulers - have been working with inadequate vehicles.

"Today Chief Pena painted a picture I know well. We are going to meet these needs as much as we can with the limited city revenues we have, hence the importance of the public safety bonds that the voters are asked to approve," Turner said. "This is just one of the steps we need to take to get us where we need to be."

'At a critical juncture'

Even if voters approve the bonds, that amount would not fund Pena's request for $1.7 million to buy more water rescue equipment, including 21 additional boats and high water vehicles, or the $330,500 needed to train staff.

It also would not grow the department's fleet, Pena said, or remedy the fact that ambulances make up just 40 percent of HFD's core fleet when 85 percent of calls are medical.

"The ask is just to maintain what we have right now," Pena said. "We need additional medical resources, ambulances."

That concerned Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Marty Lancton.

"At some point, somebody needs to make this a priority," he said. "It's already at a critical juncture."

Still, Lancton added, the chief's proposal would at least represent progress.

"Anything that's going to dig us out of the hole we're in is going to be a positive," he said.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, whose past requests for additional HFD rescue and training dollars have been voted down, was among the council members who praised Pena's detailed presentation, which included charts showing how many vehicles HFD has purchased annually, back to the mid-1990s.

"You've got to have the resources and the foundation for them to do their job," said Stardig, who chairs the council's public safety committee. "We know that the skillset for living on a bayou is water training. You know you have to have the equipment. These gaps, deferred maintenances and inefficiencies … it's all got to be changed."

The $2 million water rescue investments would require an extra $100,000 per year to maintain the equipment and training.

Firefighters long have advocated for more swift-water rescue training and a specialized response team, but HFD lacked either when Harvey hit. The department ended up carrying out 7,000 rescues with just one high-water rescue vehicle, 10 aging shallow-water evacuation boats, six swift-water rescue boats, and several inflatable dinghies and working personal watercrafts.

'Expected risk'

Pena's plan includes adding four rescue boats, 10 evacuation boats, seven high water vehicles and four personal watercrafts, and dramatically would increase the number of firefighters trained to conduct water rescues and operate rescue vehicles.

Severe floods no longer can be written off as "high-risk, low-frequency" events, he said.

"What we should be doing is we should be planning for the expected risk," he said.

Nine of the 16 council members attended some portion of the hearing. Councilman David Robinson summed up the dominant response.

"I feel very strongly that what we've been presented today is worth supporting," he said. "As far as I'm concerned it looks reasonable."

Copyright 2017 Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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