Growth in Houston District 10 Also Builds Up Fire Challenges

Growth in Houston District 10 Also Builds Up Fire Challenges

In the southwest section of Houston is an area designated as Fire District 10 that has changed so radically in 20 years that it deserves special notice. The challenges in this district have increased so rapidly that even the most dedicated fire officers, such as District 10 Chief Max McRae, have trouble keeping up with the new construction techniques, multimillion-dollar shopping complexes, and high-rise office, hotel and apartment buildings.

District 10 was formed in 1954 when Station 28 opened at Westheimer and Sage Roads with a 750-gpm pumper and a 65-foot aerial ladder. The district covered less than 10 square miles and was mostly made up of one-story, single-family residences. A few average size strip shopping centers, several small apartments, and the usual schools and churches were the only high-risk occupancies in the district. For six years, little change occurred.

In 1958, Station 3 was relocated from the downtown area to West Alabama and Cummins Lane, about 3 miles closer to town than Station 28. Station 3 is a single house with one pumper. An ambulance was added later.

Building boom starts

Around 1960, a boom in apartment construction began in Houston, with much of it in District 10. More shopping centers were built, including a huge regional one, Sharpstown Center. A few low and high-rise office and apartment buildings began appearing. Vacant prairie became apartment complexes and strip shopping centers almost overnight. With no zoning, an unusual combination of structures became evident. To top things off, two freeways were built, crisscrossing the entire district like a large X. Along these two freeways, high-rise offices, hotels, and apartments sprang like mushrooms.

By the late 1960s, land prices ruled out single-family units, and huge apartment and town house (two or three-story row houses) complexes were being built at an unbelievable rate. Several multimillion-dollar high-rise office building complexes were begun, and one of the most unique shopping centers in the nation was opened.

District 10, outlined on map of Houston, faces rapidly increasing fire challenges. Circle numbers indicate location of fire stations

—Map by Dave Miller

This was the Galleria complex, an open four-story mall surrounding an ice-skating rink. In turn, the mall is surrounded by a 22-story office building, a 21-story hotel, a 25-story office building, Nieman-Marcus department store, and extensive underground parking garages. All of these buildings are connected. This complex is presently being doubled in size, with additional mall area and hotel and office buildings. This complex is directly across the street from Station 28 and often causes traffic jams that delay apparatus from leaving the station.

More high-rises

The other huge complex is Greenway Plaza, at Southwest Freeway and Buffalo Speedway, in the eastern part of District 10. Presently there are nine high-rise offices, ranging from seven to 32 stories, a sports arena, a two-level underground shopping mall, and 1 million square feet of underground parking, which creates another response problem. Most new apparatus are too high to enter the parking garage.

In 1962, Station 51 was opened at Bellaire Boulevard and Bintliff, several miles southwest of Station 28. At first, only a pumper operated out of Station 51, but later Ladder 18, a 65-foot aerial, was added. In 1967, Station 60, the latest, was opened at Jeanetta and Clarkcrest, about 3 miles directly west of Station 28. One pumper and a grass fire rig operate out of Station 60.

At present, these four stations in District 10 protect 17.8 square miles with about 180,000 people. There are 50 four to six-story office buildings, 54 seven to 32-story office buildings, 16 high-rise apartments (eight to 23 stories), three regional shopping centers, five hospitals, 31 churches, 15 schools, hundreds of apartment complexes, hundreds of warehouses, many industrial and manufacturing complexes, and thousands of single-family houses, including the most exclusive and expensive mansions in Houston, ranging from $100,000 to several million dollars each.

Construction variety

The building techniques alone require almost continuous study. District Chief McRae speaks on building construction to groups all over the state. Post-tensioned concrete, tiltslab, prestressed concrete, light wood truss, and almost any other form of construction being used in the nation today is evident in District 10.

Presenting the worst fire and lifesafety hazard are the enormous apartment complexes. There are 211 complexes with 100 units or more, with several complexes having nearly 2000 units. Construction problems abound here with aluminum wire, polyvinyl chloride pipe, light wood trusses, wood shingle roofs, common attics, combustible siding, breached fire partitions, and lack of parapets on the 400-foot-long wood shingle roofs. Add to this narrow driveways, long hose lays, long runs for responding companies, inaccessible courtyards which require long hand lines, and an increasing problem with arsonists, and they spell problems, with a capital P.

Due to the lack of zoning, hundreds of small, medium and large warehouses are scattered throughout the district. Industries range from light manufacturing to a missile plant containing many exotic hazardous materials. About the only hazards missing from this district are an airport and a waterfront-and still more than 40 percent of the district is vacant land.

Four-man companies

Manpower consists of about 32 men per shift, with four men each on the pumpers and ladder trucks, and two men on the grass fire rig, chiefs car and two ambulances. Response to alarms in 1954 averaged about 15 to 30 runs per month for the district chief. Last year, the average was 80 runs per month. This may seem a low number compared to some cities, but a large number of these were working fires.

The fire loss in District 10 is almost always the highest in the city. Last January, the loss for four fires in District 10 was $213,000, and one fire in District 10 during February, caused a $1.5 million loss. Compare this with a $10-million loss for the entire city in 1973.

There may be other fire districts with the same types of hazards, but I doubt that any has the combination of size, few stations and companies, rapid growth and snowballing of fire losses.

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