The Houston Fire Department performed many heroic and dangerous rescues during Hurricane Harvey. However, internal emails and interviews with firefighters reveal the fire stations did not receive direct orders from higher-ups to prepare for the storm, leaving many stations undermanned and under-equipped during the worst weather event in Houston history.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña made the decision not to recall the department’s 4,000 firefighters to their stations in response to the storm, largely to protect his personnel from being caught up in the rising waters while in transit to their stations.
“This was an extraordinary event,” Peña said. “The amount of flooding and the expansive area that it happened in, I don’t think anyone expected that.”
Peña may have been considering the case of Houston Police Department Sergeant Steve Perez, who drowned when his vehicle was trapped in the floodwaters on his way to his station.
With that in mind, instead of the 4,000 firefighters who are on staff on a daily basis, the department fielded only a single shift of 850 firefighters for a city covering over 600 square miles and with a population of over 2.3 million people.
The decision not to recall firefighters to their stations has drawn criticism from rank-and-file department members. Luke Manion, a firefighter with the department’s Technical Rescue Division, said the decision not to recall more rescue workers left those who did show up exhausted after working for several days without rest.
“There just wasn’t enough manpower,” Manion said. “We needed more rescuers.”
Manion worked for six consecutive days driving a 2.5-ton truck through up to seven feet of water to perform rescues. He remarked on how having firefighters and rescue workers at their station prior to the storm would have enabled them to make more rescues, get more rest, and work more efficiently.
“It was very chaotic, very frustrating,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be a plan in place.”