About this time two years ago, many Houstonians were stranded in flooded homes, desperately awaiting rescue. Social media was overflowing with individuals begging for help. Many were forced to flee to any nearby high ground, including freeway overpasses. Some waited to be rescued for days, frequently with little food or water. One lady was stranded on an overpass for two days.
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Volunteers from every quarter rushed to help. Make-shift emergency networks passed information about the location of those in need of rescue. Individuals and groups like the Cajun Navy and Brittmoore Rescue saved thousands from their flooded homes. Also, many of Houston’s fire fighters ignored the order to stay home and headed to their stations or joined with the volunteer groups.
Yes, you read that right: In the midst of this mayhem, the City of Houston inexplicably ordered its off-duty fire fighters to stay home. Houston has about 4,000 firefighters, with about 850 on duty at any given time. The other roughly 3,000 off-duty officers are available to be called up for duty in the event of an emergency.
Just after noon on Sunday, August 27, the city sent out an email calling on Tier 1 employees, which includes fire fighters, to report for duty. But two hours later the City sent out another email saying that the previous email did not include fire fighters who were not already on duty. Later that day, County Judge Ed Emmett called for volunteers to assist with rescues, saying that government resources were exhausted, apparently unaware that the City had 3,000 fire fighters sitting at home. It was not until Tuesday that the City began calling in some of its off-duty fire fighters. Of course, by then most of the rescues had been made.
This is one of those stories that is so bizarre and so irrational that it is hard to believe. But it is true. The order to stay home was reported at the time by many media outlets. I have provided links to some of those below. And you can read the order yourself by clicking here.
This order unquestionably put lives at risk and delayed rescues. Turner has never offered any explanation for his order. Absent some rational explanation, this order was gross incompetence at best. But I fear there was a darker motivation at work.
Harvey arrived in Houston at the height of the feud between Turner and the fire fighters. Only weeks before Harvey, the fire fighters had collected and filed their petition requiring pay parity, a measure bitterly opposed by Turner. Only days before Harvey, Turner and the fire fighter union president had traded barbs over Turner’s refusal to count the petitions. By telling fire fighters to stay home, Turner avoided paying them the overtime pay they would have otherwise earned during the disaster.
HPD did call in all of its off-duty personnel which is reflected in the City personnel report for the period covering Harvey shows that HPD’s overtime was 1,317 FTEs over budget. That was 36 times HPD’s budgeted overtime. HFD was 206 FTEs over budget, only a little over twice what it had budgeted. In previous disasters the overtime for the two departments has been comparable.
As many of you will recall, Governor Perry appointed me to gubernatorial commissions to study the aftermaths of Hurricanes Rita and Ike. After Hurricane Rita the regional county judges asked me to chair a task force that helped rewrite our evacuation procedures. I have also studied natural disaster emergency procedures for years. Based on everything I have learned, I am simply at a loss to conceive of any legitimate reason to order first responders to stay home under these circumstances.
If Turner wants to lead Houston for another four years, he needs to provide an explanation about why he told Houston’s fire fighters to stay home. If he does not, he does not deserve a second term.
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