HFD memo says lack of boats hampered Memorial Day flood rescues

Houston firefighters were hampered by a lack of rescue boats, life preservers for civilians, poor radio communications, a slow initial response and a lack of command supervision as they responded to the deadly Memorial Day flooding that killed seven people, internal Houston Fire Department documents show.

The late night storm, which caught many Houstonians off guard, sent area bayous out of their banks in a matter of hours. Hundreds of homes and thousands of cars flooded, necessitating dozens of fast water rescues, the most dramatic of which was the capsizing of a fire department boat in Brays Bayou that killed three people.

An "After Action" report issued by Senior Capt. Wes Hurst does not provide many specific details about that tragedy, in which two firefighter rescuers and four civilians were tossed into churning flood waters, but it documents critical issues confronted by rescue crews that night.

Among them:

Not enough rescue boats were available, many of them cut off by the weather;

A high-profile vehicle for water rescues and a Metro bus for shelter requested by rescue commanders were not available;

The rescue boats had too few life vests for civilians who were plucked from the floodwater;

Firefighters had trouble communicating on the city's troubled digital radio system.

Leaks in rescue boat

A separate document obtained under an open records request also revealed the boat used in the fatal rescue attempt had non-repairable leaks discovered during a test last August by a private boat repair service, which determined it was beyond repair but could still be used in operations.

On Friday, fire officials and Mayor Annise Parker stressed that a full investigation into the city's response has yet to be completed.

"This is but one senior captain's account," Parker said in a prepared statement. "A thorough internal investigation is underway and until all the facts and information have been compiled and processed it is premature to speculate about the outcome."

She noted the city is always looking for ways to improve operations and will not hesitate to implement any necessary changes found by HFD's internal review.

A spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management disputed Hurst's contention that the Metro bus needed for shelter was unavailable.

Alvin W. White Jr., president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the report, first obtained by Houston television station KPRC, highlighted ongoing concerns about aging equipment, crisis management and the need for specialized swift-water training for crews of HFD boat rescue teams.

"The department has not had swift water rescue training in the past eight years," said White. "What we want is to get these members their training, and make sure we don't have a repeat of what happened that night where we were not prepared."

In a prepared statement, Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison said the department is still reviewing the May 26 rescue effort and will not comment until that review is complete. He added that HFD's thoughts and prayers continue to be with family of the victims and the department will continue to learn from this tragedy to improve its response in the future.

"The statements (in the report) in question do not describe departmental opinion, but only the accounts of one member so that it may be later reviewed for accuracy by comparing them to a global review of all the information collected," Garrison stated.

'Didn't do wrong'

Between midnight on May 25th and through the following day, HFD rescue teams responded to a total of 1,782 calls, of which 583 were related to water rescues, according to an HFD e-mail to city officials.

Seven weather-related deaths were reportedly due to the Memorial Day flooding. All but one man, who is believed to have died of a heart attack after pushing his vehicle from a flooded street, appear to have drowned.

Three of those victims were aboard rescue boat 42 - Jack Alter, 87, his wife Shirley, 85 and a third man identified as 50-year-old Anh Phan Nguyen - and all three are believed to have drowned after the boat capsized. A fourth passenger on the boat, the Alters' 50-year-old daughter, was able to swim to shore.

One of the Alters' sons previously told the Chronicle that his sister told him all the passengers were wearing life jackets.

White, the firefighters union president, stressed that all four civilians were wearing life preservers when the inflatable boat capsized.

"The most important piece of that report is those firefighters in the boat that flipped over didn't do anything wrong," White said. "They put vests on those people who perished, although I know one was found without a vest downstream."

Need for better gear

After picking up the four stranded residents, the rescue boat hit a submerged object and a safety mechanism caused the outboard motor to lift out of the water and shut off. Before the crew could lower the motor back into the water, the boat became pinned against a pillar and the strong current flipped it over, White said the crew members reported.

"Once that boat loses power, they're at the mercy of the water," the union chief said.

An internal department memo from August 2014 notes that rescue boat 42 - the inflatable boat which capsized during the rescue - had non-repairable leaks in its fabric hulls. The memo states that the leaks, were "not enough to place the boat out of service, and not rapid enough to not properly inflate it prior to using it." An invoice from repair shop also stated that there was a "large amount of porosity on seams and fabric that is not repairable."

White said he doesn't think the leaks played a "major role" in the accident, but demonstrate the need for better equipment.

"They need new equipment, but the older boats they are using need to be maintained better," he said.

The report also faulted the city's Office of Emergency Management for not being more prepared for severe weather incidents.

Michael Walter, spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management, said that it appears Hurst was mistaken when he indicated that the office was not activated when he asked for a Metro bus for shelter and other vehicles for water rescues. He said the OEM has a 24-hour response capability and personnel were working remotely that day before they were able to get to the office.

"There was not a single request that was made to the OEM that was not handled by the OEM," Walter said.

In the report, Hurst also listed several actions that could be taken, including continued training on water rescues and purchasing more life preservers for citizens.

Budget requests

White said firefighters were upset when a request for $186,000 to train the 70-plus members of the boat rescue crews was rejected during a budget hearing last month. He noted the council voted to place $5.5 million into individual council district accounts for neighborhood projects.

"They like to come to our funerals, and stand with the police and fire fighters when there is a line of duty death," White said of city officials. "But when it comes time to putting their money where their mouth is, they do the opposite. They don't really support public safety when the time comes."

City councilwoman Brenda Stardig said her budget request last month for an additional $420,000 to add three HFD chief positions to supervise rescue operations was also voted down.

"It's deferred maintenance that's going to come as a premium, just like our streets and infrastructure," Stardig said. "And heaven forbid that (the city) ends up with more loss of life because of the lack of maintenance and training.''

Source : http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/HFD-memo-says-lack-of-boats-hampered-Memorial-Day-6378649.php

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