HFD Chief Inspector: Fire safety in Houston ‘will be diminished’

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by Mark Greenblatt / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on June 20, 2011 at 10:05 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 10:22 AM

HOUSTON -- Serious fire-code violations may get overlooked and major fires may become more likely in Houston if a department plan to layoff an entire division of the Fire Marshal’s Office moves forward, according to an internal memo written by a chief inspector with the Houston Fire Department.

KHOU obtained the interoffice memo written by Chief Inspector George Meadows last month, in which he expressed concerns about the city’s decision and urged them to reverse course. In the letter, Meadows voices strong concerns about a plan to layoff the entire Permit Compliance Group -- the team of employees that makes sure apartments, businesses, and high-risk locations throughout Houston have the proper permits to operate.

Without permits, fire inspectors don’t know to inspect the locations.   In addition, fire fighters responding to a fire may not get proper notification about potentially hazardous materials that could pose a threat to their safety.

The six-person permit team focuses strictly on permitting locations and renewing expired permits while freeing up fire inspectors to focus their time on safety inspections.  An added benefit: the group generates large amounts of revenue for the city by getting more businesses to pay their required permitting fees. 

In his letter, Meadows noted how at a recent meeting of chiefs, the senior leaders had been told various entities were pressuring the fire department to layoff civilians before laying off classified firefighters. 

“This leads me to question if proposing to terminate the PCG employees is based on politics or sound business reasoning,” he wrote.

Meadows also warned that eliminating this entire division of employees will transfer the heavy administrative and revenue-generating burden of permitting right back to fire inspectors, forcing them to return to an inspection philosophy that allowed one of the worst fires in the history of Houston. 

“The focus on permit collections and lack of quality life safety inspections was identified as playing a role in the Market Street fire,” Meadows wrote. “It has been said that those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it.”

The Market Street warehouse fire took place in 1995 on the east end of Houston.  Firefighters responding to the scene had no idea about the extent of hazardous materials located inside the warehouse.   To their surprise, a large explosion ensued and a fire burned for days, prompting a six-alarm response.

An independent city performance audit commissioned by then Controller Annise Parker concluded
,
“The Market Street fire had a devastating effect on the surrounding community of Pleasantville and caused many citizens to become concerned.”

The audit specifically talked about the negative impact on public safety that came about when the city had fire inspectors worrying about bringing in money.   “This (Market Street) fire also compelled the Houston Fire Department to critique and change inspection practices and philosophy. Historically, the Fire Prevention Bureau focused solely on revenue generated inspections. This past policy, coupled with the fact the Fire Prevention Bureau lacked specialized inspections, allowed serious fire code violations to be overlooked,” the audit said.

Chief Inspector Meadows warns the complete elimination of the permit compliance group will only force inspectors to once again take time away from safety and focus more attention generating revenue.

“History clearly points out that losing the PCG will have a negative affect on annual permit revenue and life-safety inspections.  Our division’s ability to focus on what should be our number one objective; providing quality life-safety inspections and improving the overall safety of our community will be diminished.”

Veteran firefighter Dennis Pruitt, who retired in 2005, but came to work as a civilian for the permit group, agrees.

“The fire inspection part of it is going to fail,” he said. “They cannot do both with the manpower they have. It’s not possible.”

Pruitt, who will lose his job along with the rest of the group in July, says his pension from his days as a firefighter would have allowed him to volunteer to be laid off.   However, he says, eliminating the entire division is a mistake.

“I believe there was a way they could have done our division, maybe laid off two (employees),” Pruitt said. “All I would have asked is they would have been fair about it. Take a couple of secretaries here, or a couple people from over here.”

Pruitt believes the civilian division is being laid off due to favoritism in the department.
Jorge Galindo, who supervises the Permit Compliance Group and who is also among the planned layoffs, says the group is made up of low-cost and high-efficiency employees.    Each employee makes just $30,000 a year, while the department generates $5 million for the city in revenue.

“We are part of the solution to the city’s fiscal problems, not part of the problem,” he said.

Galindo says he is also troubled that the decision to lay off his entire team came from the Fire Marshal without consultation with the fire prevention command staff, which includes Chief Meadows.

Galindo notes that his entire team has consistently scored high on annual employee performance evaluations.  He says he thinks pressure from city hall to have safety inspectors keep the revenue stream from permits flowing will definitely impact safety.

“They’re going to be more focused on permitting trying to cover what we were doing,” he said. “They’re going to miss certain things, overlook certain things when they go into a building.”

Regulatory investigator Joe Guiton, who will also lose his job, says he doesn’t understand why the city would want to have much costlier employees take time to work on permitting.  He notes that for every hour it takes to follow up on businesses that don’t have proper permits, the person who replaces him will make, “about three times what I make now.”

Houston Fire Marshal Richard Galvan, who the permit compliance group says suggested the elimination of the team, defends the layoffs.

“My decision was to run this department more efficiently. Because I’m the custodian of tax dollars,” Galvan said.

KHOU: “Chief inspector George Meadows says that your decision will put the city of Houston at great risk.”

Galvan: “It will not.”

KHOU: “But when efficiency threatens life safety?”

Galvan: “It does not threaten life safety.”

KHOU: “Is the chief inspector simply wrong?”

Galvan: “That’s his opinion. He’s entitled to his opinion.”

 The permit compliance group says it plans to appeal the layoffs to city council and Mayor Annise Parker. 

 

Follow Mark on Twitter: @greenblattmark

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