Houston short-handed for Harvey
Without official edict, one shift of firefighters led rescue efforts
While Tropical Storm Harvey lashed at his city, Fire Capt. Scott Wilkey, having received no official word from headquarters, took matters into his own hands and drove the 35 miles from his home to the fire station he commands.
It was Saturday, Aug. 26, and meteorologists warned of catastrophic flooding in the city.
Over the next 72 hours, Wilkey and hundreds of other Houston firefighters would be involved in some of the most dramatic and harrowing house rescues this city has seen — all without an official order to report to work from superiors.
As thousands of residents were trapped by rising floodwaters, Houston Fire officials waited until Tuesday, Aug. 29, before ordering a partial increase in the number of firefighters to their stations, according to firefighters, department officials and internal emails.
Lacking in their own numbers, Houston firefighters joined forces with search-and-rescue teams from across the USA, federal responders and swarms of citizens who appeared with personal fishing boats, airboats and Jet Skis to help residents escape. The Houston firefighters’ knowledge of city streets was key in navigating the rescues.
The decision not to “recall” — or officially order to duty — all of Houston’s 4,000 firefighters to the flood fight was made by Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña as Harvey’s rain pounded the city and he weighed the risks and benefits of sending firefighters into harm’s way.
For three days, fire officials left a single shift — about 845 firefighters — to lead rescue missions in the city of 2.3 million residents.
“It was frustrating and heart-
“There was a lot of outright anger from the rank and file. There just wasn’t enough manpower.”
Firefighter Luke Manion
breaking,” Wilkey said of the lack of a full recall from headquarters. “You can hear on the radio how desperate the situation was getting.”
Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the area in four days, becoming the largest rain event in U.S. history and overwhelming even the best-intentioned disaster plans. The Houston Fire Department answered 15,000 emergency calls and launched 7,000 rescues, pulling thousands of residents out of the floods, even as their own homes flooded and families were imperiled.
Firefighters with the Houston Fire Department were on the frontlines of the rescues. But many were acting on their own accord, improvising rescue plans and managing worsening conditions without an official deploy- ment of the department’s full force, according to firefighters and internal emails. Many who weren’t on shift showed up anyway, canceling vacations and rushing back to the city.
“There was a lot of outright anger from the rank and file,” said Luke Manion, a firefighter with the department’s Technical Rescue Division, who drove a 21⁄2- ton truck through high water for several days during the floods. “There just wasn’t enough manpower.”
With not enough boats or highwater vehicles for all 4,000 Houston firefighters to use, Peña said he made the decision not to imperil more of his firefighters by ordering them to their stations. “This was an extraordinary event,” he said. “The amount of flooding and the expansive area that it happened in, I don’t think anyone expected that.”
But if all firefighters were recalled to their stations, many of them would have arrived with their own boats or equipment, or at least been present to relieve many of the firefighters who ended up working four and five days straight during the rescues, Manion said.
“It would have given them a chance to rest,” he said. “We needed more rescuers.”
Recalling extra shifts to their stations before impending disasters such as floods or hurricanes is a common procedure, said John Riddle, president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters. Staging firefighters at stations before a disaster hits allows them to brace for the work ahead and work out any kinks in disaster plans, he said. It also allows firefighters to replace those who have been on extraordinary long shifts.
He called Houston’s decision not to recall any extra shifts “surprising.”
The Houston Fire Department Hurricane Guideline, a 15-page detailed guide for how the department should respond to a looming hurricane, states that “all Houston Fire Department personnel” should prepare to be recalled to their stations when a hurricane watch is issued for the Houston/Galveston area. Under a hurricane warning, the fire chief decides whether a recall is necessary.
“Everyone in Houston and Galveston knew there was a flooding threat,” said Patrick Blood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.
Houston firefighters gather for a briefing before going on a door-to-door survey of a neighborhood that was hit by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston.