HOUSTON -- Anytime a building catches fire, it’s a critical question: Where’s the nearest fire station?
For the massive, five-alarm blaze that erupted at an apartment construction site on Montrose, the answer was just one mile away, at HFD Station 6 on Washington Avenue. And that could have raised a problem.
Staffing shortages have led Houston to occasionally take some of its fire department vehicles out of service, leaving them parked in their stations when there aren’t enough firefighters to put them on the streets. The extent of these so-called “brown outs” varies daily, depending on how many firefighters go on vacation or take sick days.
Luckily, the fire department had enough people on duty to avoid a “brown out” the morning of the Montrose fire. But if there had been a “brown out,” sources tell KHOU 11 News Station 6 would’ve been one of the first affected, taking out of service some of the fire trucks closest to one of the biggest blazes in the city’s recent history.
“If we did have brown outs – thankfully, we didn’t – Station 6, at least the pumper or the ladder (truck), would’ve been out of service,” said Bryan Sky Eagle, the president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association. “And that would’ve increased response times anywhere from six to seven minutes.”
Another curious point: HFD Station 6 is also home to the nearest tower truck, a vehicle similar to the ladder truck from another station that was used in the dramatic rescue of a construction worker trapped on a fourth-story balcony. A wall collapsed eight seconds later, illustrating how moments can count during a potentially deadly disaster.
“You know, I could do ‘what ifs” all day,” said Mayor Annise Parker, in response to a reporter’s question.
The mayor recently reached an accord with the firefighter’s union designed to bolster staffing and reduce the number of “brown out” days. Since that deal was struck, Parker said, the problem has arisen on only one day.
Parker conceded that “brown outs” could delay response times, but said that’s one of the reasons HFD engages in “redundant dispatching” by rushing a number of fire vehicles to the same incident.
“As we have seen, unfortunately, a fire truck going to the scene can have an accident, get stuck in traffic and slowed,” Parker said. “And so we do a lot of things to make sure that someone arrives on scene as rapidly as possible.”
But firefighter union leaders said that doesn’t address the problem posed by lowered response times.
“Response times do matter,” Sky Eagle said. “And yesterday was a dramatic example of that. But it’s not going to be the only one.”