Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

Chief Concerns

Resources, at-risk populations, and the planning imperative: Fire chiefs from Houston, Orlando, and Miami-Dade share their experiences of one of the worst storm seasons on record

BY JESSE ROMAN

Historic flooding, damaging winds, vulnerable populations, limited resources—it’s been a challenging hurricane season for fire and rescue departments across Southeast Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. NFPA Journal recently had an opportunity to find out just how challenging it’s been when it spoke with Chief Sam Peña of the Houston Fire Department, Chief David Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, and Chief Otto Drozd of Orange County (Florida) Fire Rescue, about their experiences during one of the worst storm seasons on record. The chiefs were at NFPA headquarters in September to participate in the Urban Fire Forum, and their excerpted comments here are taken from a forum presentation and from interviews conducted by Journal staff.

Comments have been edited for clarity.

Map showing where the different fire chiefs hail from

In late August, Hurricane Harvey dropped between 40 and 50 inches of rain on Houston over the span of just a few days, inundating even neighborhoods where flooding has been rare or nonexistent. Though the Houston Fire Department is one of the largest in the country, with 100 stations and roughly 4,000 firefighters, the storm’s impact exposed problems with department resources, which included just 10 evacuation boats, six rescue boats, and a single high-water rescue vehicle, tools Peña described as “inadequate” in Harvey’s aftermath. Peña had been on the job in Houston for just eight months when Harvey hit.

CHIEF PEÑA

We have a lot of experience with hurricanes—we went through Ike, Rita, Allison—but this storm fell into the black swan category for us. It was something really unexpected. You would expect the operational period during a hurricane to be one to two days maybe, but this thing lasted over a week.

This storm highlighted something that we are dealing with on a day-to-day basis: the demand [on our department] is continuously higher than our capacity. As big as the Houston Fire Department is, our assets are not adequate enough to even address the expected floods. The biggest gap was the amount of equipment that we were able to muster. We needed boats, high-water vehicles, those types of things.

Do you know how many people fit in a dump truck? Thirty-five. We found that out because we were using dump trucks as high-water vehicles.

You can’t budget for the extraordinary, which is what Harvey presented, but we certainly should be budgeting for the expected risk in the community. We find ourselves really outmatched right now in regards to resources, professional development, and training to efficiently respond to these high-risk, low-frequency events. But even those low-frequency events are happening more often. The conversation now has really got to be about how much risk the community wants to buy down. What investment does it want to make, and how much security do we want to have within the community to be able to respond to these things that are happening at least once a year? At this moment, my assessment is that we’re not prepared. If we had more resources, we’d be better prepared to respond to what we experienced.

Despite the challenges, Houston’s firefighters made more than 7,000 documented rescues of flood victims throughout the city, “using every piece of equipment we had,” Peña said. About 1,000 of Houston’s 4,000 firefighters were on duty during Harvey. During the height of the storm, the department sent an email to the remaining 3,000 firefighters telling them not to come to their stations unless specifically asked—most self-deployed anyway as private citizens. The move not to officially recall the firefighters was criticized in the local media, but Peña defended it saying that every piece of equipment was already staffed, and even if there were more boats, only 250 firefighters had proper swift-water rescue training. More training is essential for his department, and for any department in a high-risk area like Houston, he said.

CHIEF PEÑA

If I called them in, what would we have them do? If we call them in, there is an expectation that we could put them to work, but we had no more boats or vehicles for them to use. Also, we need to make an investment in our personnel, in our training, as well as in the equipment we are providing and keeping on hand. It is our responsibility as managers not to deploy just anybody onto these boats. The environment that Houston deals with is swift-water, not stagnant, when we get this kind of flooding, and that is a different kind of risk. Our firefighters need specialized training and equipment to be able to effectively respond to those types of emergencies. You can’t replace a boat crew with a vanilla firefighter, you know? That is one of the big items that, moving forward, we are going to ensure we have in place.

Family walks through knee-deep water in the middle of a hurricane

River Wold One of the many roads blocked off in Houston During Hurricane Harvey as over 50 inches of rain fell in parts of the city. Photograph: Newscom

I know this is an issue that all municipalities are dealing with—decreasing revenue and tightening budgets—and the first thing that goes is training. But that is really short-sighted, because if you start monetizing the effects of a lack of training on efficiency, on our capacity, on our resiliency, on injury rates, on our inability to really protect and provide the service that our community is expecting, the cost ends up being much greater than what we would expend in the training itself. So those conversations need to happen with our elected officials.

We also have to think about the crews—some of them worked two to three days straight just because they couldn’t get out and we couldn’t get people in, especially specialty rescue crews. It was just a matter of capacity. The firefighters of Houston performed admirably, and I don’t think they get enough credit for the work they did. They were point on all of these rescues, but that doesn’t fix the glaring issue, which is a lack of resources, a lack of training, a lack of assets to be able to meet the expected risk that exists in the community.

To aid Houston, the fire department called in four Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search and Rescue teams, as well as a Texas Task Force 1 team to help on the ground. The fire department maintained operational control over those resources, but Peña soon found that seamlessly plugging in extra assets is a challenge in its own right, especially if there hadn’t been a previous ongoing relationship and co-training.

CHIEF PEÑA

Those teams were being deployed by our incident commanders in the field, and it worked well initially for the first deployment, but because we had such limited communications [and a lack of radios], once they were deployed they are pretty much on their own. I know they were doing work, but it took them a long time to get back to redeploy. We need to increase our cache of radios that we have available for these larger incidents, especially when we bring in outside agencies.

The other consideration is better coordinating with the agencies we are going to work with in these major events before the event happens. It is very difficult to come together as a team in the middle of the incident. So we have to have those relationships, that network, the understanding of the capacities and capabilities of the individuals that represent these other departments that we will be leveraging equipment and resources from, and vice versa.

Another thing was how crammed our facilities were. At one point, I want to say we had at least 400 extra personnel in our fire stations just from those few teams that I can think of, in addition to our on-duty firefighters. We were one on top of the other. That became a logistics issue—things you wouldn’t consider, like running out of toilet paper. Those are things that need to be thought of and implemented into our plan.

He reports Houston is recovering.

CHIEF PEÑA

Houston is fighting back. Its resiliency is incredible. We took an aerial flight to assess the damage, and right away you saw people fighting back. This storm affected everybody from low-income households to multi-millionaire households—if you were in its path, it was going to hit you in the mouth. But as soon as the rain stopped, people were out there taking out debris, getting back on their feet. Shoot, at the height of the storm, you had people who were losing their own homes who were bringing food, clothing, and water to the first responders. The firefighters are committed to their community, and they want to see Houston succeed. It will.

On the night of September 10, Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph, made landfall in the Florida Keys before turning north and tracking the length of the state. Though spared a direct hit by the storm, Miami-Dade County experienced hurricane-force gusts that knocked out power, downed trees, and threatened thousands of lives. During the storm, Chief Downey issued a rare no-response order: residents were told not to expect help if they called 911 while Irma was at its peak.

CHIEF DOWNEY

I issued the no-response order at about 8:30 a.m. when we had about 50–60 mph winds, so we stopped responding but we continued to collect 911 calls. Holding is the toughest thing to do, but the safety of firefighters was the issue. If a call comes in as a life-threatening cardiac arrest, or as a fire with persons trapped that we can somewhat confirm, we put it right back to the area command and say, ‘listen, you guys have to make the [determination if it’s safe enough to respond].’ We had situations where guys felt they were able to get out. We all have stories—one of our fire engines went out and delivered a baby, then took the mom and the newborn to the hospital in the fire truck, because it was easier to move the fire truck through the streets than the rescue truck.

When we resumed responding at about 6:30 p.m., we were holding about 200 911 calls. We put extra units in service—medic units, 10 extra rescue units, seven extra suppression units—and we were able to clear the log in about an hour.

The Damage done graphic

Orlando took a similar, but slightly different, approach to its response during the height of Irma.

CHIEF DROZD

Our calls went up 450 percent at the height of the storm. We went to single-unit responses and started stacking some of the lower priority calls. As the storm progressed, we put [the decision of whether to respond] on the field commanders to make the assessments within their individual areas. Because we cover 1,000 square miles or so, winds can be much different in one area than another. Allowing units to respond paid dividends in certain areas—we have helmet-cam footage of our units rescuing people out of chest-deep water in their homes in the middle of the night. This being Florida, there were alligators, and some of the crews were dodging moccasins in the water—not the ones that you wear on your feet, the ones that slither.

Days after the storm passed, on September 13, eight elderly residents died in a nursing facility in Hollywood, Florida, north of Miami. The storm knocked out the facility’s air-conditioning and it’s believed the residents died from excessive heat. The event sent shockwaves through the state, much of which had no electricity and a large elderly population.

CHIEF DOWNEY

This issue is going to be part of our after-action assessment. We spend a lot of time on the front end sheltering people from the imminent disaster, but there is the ongoing disaster afterwards and we’re not really thinking about sustainability with the sheltering.

After the storm, everyone wants to close the shelters, get everyone out of there, get the schools operational, but we have this huge elderly population to think about. After the storm passes through, you’re dealing with buildings that are 100-plus degrees with relative humidity in excess of 100 percent. What do we do with these populations? They aren’t in evacuation areas, they aren’t threatened with inundation from water, yet now their lives are threatened because there is in some cases no running water or electricity. It’s not just nursing homes. We have hundreds and hundreds of high-rise buildings with insufficient water pressure, no power in the building, no elevators. We devoted so many resources to just bringing food, water, and supplies up these high-rises for these folks. It’s a disaster-management planning issue. You’re really not back to normal until you at least have power in some of these vital areas.

Police cars sit in flood water as woman walks up to car

Swampy Heat A woman talks to police as she walks through a street in a neighborhood of Orlando following Hurricane Irma. Photograph: Newscom

Another after-storm issue encountered was carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, Downey said, a result of inadequately ventilated generators.

CHIEF DOWNEY

We kept putting out safety messages on carbon monoxide, but we still had three fatalities. It was a huge issue this time. After Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, nobody had generators, but this time everyone had generators.

CHIEF DROZD

We had press briefings twice a day, which is where we did a lot of safety messaging, and we also got messages out through social media. Even though we were messaging on carbon monoxide, we had three fatalities. It was a family of six. When we arrived, three of them were dead and three were unconscious. It was an 8-year-old that called 911. After that we ramped up the CO messaging. We still responded to more than 50 CO calls during that time, but there were no more deaths.

In the end, a good plan that takes into account many scenarios and includes redundancies in communication, power, fuel, and clearly stated operational directives is key to effective management and response when a major event like a hurricane occurs, Downey said. At the same time, maintaining flexibility and having a nimble workforce is also crucial.

CHIEF DOWNEY

After Hurricane Andrew, we expanded a hurricane procedure that was then about four pages long—it’s now a book, one that everybody has to understand and use. We train with it every single year leading up to hurricane season, and it definitely paid off…I’m proud of the people on my department, too—a lot of them had to take on non-traditional roles, and they performed admirably for the most part, not knowing what’s going on with their own homes and families.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photographs: NEWSCOM; SECOND FROM RIGHT, GETTY IMAGES