Simple Solutions Enhance Safety and Operations in Houston

By Robert G. Parry

After nearly 30 years of responding to alarms in both a small, paid combination department and a large urban city, I look back at the dramatic changes I have witnessed over the past decades. The safety and accountability of our members, while en route to, returning from, or operating at an emergency incident have increased significantly. Sadly, many changes in protective clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), apparatus, and communications resulted from lawsuits and lobbying from fire organizations that forced government mandates because of the high number of needless line-of-duty-deaths (LODDs) and injuries. However, not all fireground improvements must be associated with a high-cost factor. In Houston, Texas, two ideas implemented over the years at minimal expense have yielded an increase in safety and operations.

Ladder Visibility

Several years ago while operating at a daytime fire in an occupied structure near downtown Houston, our engine company was ordered to assist in ventilating the roof of a large, single-family, multiple-story dwelling. Along with a ladder company, we performed our duties and were about to descend from the roof when changing smoke and fire conditions prevented our escape.  Firefighters on the ground noticed our peril and put up ladders on the other side of the structure. We were all able to get down without any injury.  Afterwards, I recognized the danger that would have been posed had this fire occurred at night, since heavy smoke totally obscured the tips of the ground ladder. In a letter written to the Houston (TX) Fire Department (HFD) Joint Labor/Management Health and Safety Committee–which consists of members from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 and staff members of the administration–I requested that all ground ladders, including the attic or scuttle hole ladder, be marked with reflective tape from the tip to just below the third rung. I also suggested that the entire length of a roof ladder be marked to make it visible when stretched across a roof. Aerial ladders would have the top six feet of the fly section taped, including the handrail. The tape used was the same red/white reflective tape mandated for truckers to use on their trailers.

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(1) Photo by Dwane Wyble.

After a short test period at the training academy and various fire stations, all ladders, including those on reserve engines and trucks, were marked. The tape can be easily cleaned and replaced. It would seem logical for the National Fire Protection Association to address this issue with a revised standard, even one that may include different colors on the striping to distinguish between the lengths of ladders used during an incident.

Fire Hydrant Location

During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Houston was known as ‘”Boomtown” because of the large influx of new residents. The construction of new garden apartment complexes could barely keep pace with the demand. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of apartment fires, and it was not rare to have simultaneous multiple alarms at the same time. The spread of many of these fires could be linked to poor construction, arson, lack of resources, and even delay in finding a hydrant in the complex, especially at night. Although regular assigned companies are familiar with the apartment complexes in their territory, out-of-pocket and back-in companies were not so fortunate. Prior to the existence of large-diameter hose in the HFD, the first-arriving officer would announce when arriving at a working fire in a large complex, “All companies, bring your water with you.” It was extremely frustrating when an engine company officer or the incident  commander could not find a suitable water supply in a large complex because of the lack of hydrants or their locations.

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(2) Photo by John Paetow.

In the late 1980s, I proposed that every apartment complex entrance have a visible sign showing the number of hydrants in the complex for arriving companies, marking the location of the hydrants with a blue reflective marker in the driveways (Houston’s hydrants are painted blue), and enforcing no parking laws around the hydrants. The apartment managers association resisted the proposal because of the rumored cost factor. Several years later, Chief Lester Tyra expanded the fire prevention bureau with a team of inspectors dedicated to apartment complexes only. I resubmitted my proposal, and the inspectors soon developed a new enforcement program that includes this concept (see photo). This has resulted in better safety and protection for the residents as well as the responding firefighters. This also includes a new mandatory sprinkler ordinance for multifamily residential buildings of three or more stories.

The fire service is once again facing staffing shortages, station closings or brownouts, increased response times, and directives from elected officials to do more with less. These issues directly affect whether we can perform our duties in a safe and timely manner, regardless of whether we operate in a large, paid municipality or a rural volunteer department. Taking the time to implement concepts like those discussed in this article can pay large dividends in terms of firefighter safety and help us operate more efficiently and effectively on the fireground.

Robert G. Parry is a retired Houston (TX) Fire Department captain. He has an associate degree in fire science from the Houston Community College and a bachelor’s degree in emergency management administration from West Texas A&M University.  He now resides in Wexford, Pennsylvania. Parry has represented the International Association of Fire Fighters and was the lone fire service member to testify before a congressional committee for the establishment of the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor in 1997.

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