Since News 92 FM first told you about the shortage of paramedics within the city of Houston in early February, my inbox has been inundated with notes from firefighters, both active and retired, and their wives and family members. They were excited that someone was finally telling their story.
Soon, the focus of the story broadened. Not only is there a shortage of paramedics, there’s also a big shortage of firefighters in general. Add to that the lawsuit filed by the city of Houston against the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, (HFRRF) and the departments overtime problems, brownouts, accusations of firefighters taking too much vacation time to go hunting, a heated battle among the firefighters themselves over whether they should accept a deal with the city brokered by their union leadership, and the thought of facing criticism from the public for accepting the deal which included a pay raise they could actually put in their pocket during a time when the department was struggling with its finances.
All of this has been brewing less than a year after the deaths of four firefighters in the Southwest Inn Fire on May 31, 2013. That incident left several other firefighters with severe injuries, including Captain Bill Dowling, who lost both legs and suffered a brain injury as well.
Now, some firefighters are feeling the need to speak up. They can’t do it publicly without fear of disciplinary action from the department. So they have turned to sending even more private notes to me in hopes that I can pass the information along to News 92 FM listeners without revealing their identity.
I am doing my best to do just that.
In the interest of fairness, News 92 FM invites comments from all interested parties, including but not limited to Mayor Annise Parker, Houston City Council, the Houston Fire Department Command Staff and the Houston Professional Firefighters’ Association.
Here is the latest.
“The Practical Reasons of Why Minutes Count in EMS and Fire Responses”
To All Concerned:
(I write this as a firefighter and paramedic that has been ingrained with this information since day one of the fire academy, paramedic school and through successfully undertaking two promotional exams to date. While I did not footnote and cite sources the facts I present are commonly known by most in my profession, but probably not by the average person not involved in our field. A quick internet search will support this information.)
There have been a lot of strong emotional opinions and responses as to why brown-outs of Fire and EMS apparatus are a bad idea. A lot of attention has rightfully been paid toward extended response times. While much of the emotion may be subject to hyperbole, extended response times do detrimentally affect people in many cases. While a lot of EMS calls are non-emergent, many are urgent, and minutes count in the outcome, whether the patient benefits from on-scene care prior to transport (cardiac arrests, overdoses, seizures), or the patient requires a “load and go.” These scenarios include moderate to major traumas that require immediate surgery, strokes (where “time is tissue”) and heart attacks (where “time is muscle”). Now realize that there are fewer than 100 dedicated EMS units in the HFD. Considering the daytime population of the City of Houston is approximately 2,645,000. That is less than 1 EMS unit for every 26,450 people. In one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, is it really prudent to reduce EMS units as is currently in effect?
It has been mentioned in recent City Council meetings that only 15% of HFD’s responses are “fire” responses. I’m not here to dispute that fact, rather show why despite that fact it is important to have all apparatus in service at all times rather than take a chance by potentially taking the nearest unit out of service. First, I will mention that fire apparatus are often dispatched first responders on EMS calls because they are closer than the nearest dedicated EMS unit. As a first responder, these firefighter/EMTs are able to triage a call and initiate life-saving measures. Secondly, technology has reduced the number of fires annually and it is a number which continues to shrink. Technology is a double-edged sword however, and while the number of fires is decreasing, the rate at which fires grow and the lethality of their by-products continues to increase. Our furnishings are increasingly synthetic, of which many are petroleum-based which burns faster and at a higher temperature than older products.
Please take the time to watch the following five minute youtube video. It is a side by side test performed by Underwriter’s Laboratory and the National Insitute of Standards and Testing that shows a room furnished with furniture and drapes of 50 years ago and a room furnished with modern furniture and decorations. The modern room reaches flashover at 3 minutes and 40 seconds, approximately 10 times quicker than the “older” room. Once the room becomes fully engulfed it will spread through the building quickly.
In addition, technology also has also allowed construction to become incredibly more efficient and cost-effective, allowing lightweight frames to withstand incredible weights and loads. These methods have been tested and proven to be of sound engineering. The only problem is when exposed to fire and heat. These lightweight components (both wood and steel) do not have the mass to remain structurally sound for much time at all and when they fail, they often bring other components with them. (Similar to the sudden collapse of the wall after the ladder rescue at the recent 5 alarm fire on West Dallas.)
This does not even account for the fact that the gaseous by-products that are emitted by these furnishings as they heat up are much more frequent and dangerous. These gases will kill someone very quickly, even in other areas of the building that are not directly affected the fire at that time.
These points considered, I see the full fire department staffing as a necessary core service of our great City. Sure there are fewer fires, but the potential for them to grow and spread more quickly as well as spread more deadly gases to occupants trying to escape is greater. To delay a unit by taking it out of service is going to cost minutes that very well will make a difference. Firefighters that arrive even five minutes later will face a completely different scenario that they would have. This can very well make a difference in the aggressiveness we are able to act with and change our initial strategy and tactics. I completely understand and am in favor of fiscal responsibility and budget integrity, but not at the expense of core services. In an economic boom, it seems that there have to be better ways to hold those responsible for exceeding the budget or poor planning accountable without placing citizens and firefighters at an increased risk.
Thanks for your time.
Dec 17, 2010 This video, made by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Testing) shows the danger of “modern” fires compared to the danger of fires occuring 40 years ago. Keep your eye on the clock!
The room on the left is furnished with old fashioned furnishings, made mostly with natural materials (wood, cotton, wool, silk, etc).
The room on the right is furnished with stuff made largely with synthetic material. Most synthetics are petroleum based. Think of them as frozen gasoline.
The legacy room fire is just begining to really spread at the time the modern room is burning from floor to ceiling. Even the air is burning!
Think about this next time somone tells you that “response time” will only be slightly increased. If you or a loved one is in the fire apartment or house, a slight increase is NOT acceptable.