Hous­ton short-handed for Har­vey

With­out of­fi­cial edict, one shift of fire­fight­ers led res­cue ef­forts

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Rick Jervis @mrR­jervis USA TO­DAY

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.

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