City of Houston Fire Department assistant chief Jon Cook, left, and Lt. Bobby Bell remove air pack tanks from a machine that refills them inside the fire station on First Street.

The City of Houston Fire Department responded to 71 incidents in 2018, according to Chief Robbie Smith.

Smith, 44, has been with the department since he was in the high school Junior Firefighter program at age 16.

“Looking at prior years, I think that’s right at average,” he said. “There was one year when we had over 100, but that was unusual.”

Smith said the department finished 2018 with 21 people on the roster, including 19 male, two female and four Junior Firefighters. Students ages 16 to 18 are eligible for the Junior program, and one of the current Juniors is a girl.

“And we have two more Juniors who are putting applications in,” Smith said.

The Houston FD responded to five structure fires in 2018. Smith said the mid-summer house fire on Hawthorne Street was the department’s biggest event of the year. The blaze was fought for many hours in sweltering heat, and several firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion.

“That was a large call,” Smith said, “bringing in Licking, Cabool, Raymondville, Houston Rural and all that manpower, and then having to deal with transporting firefighters to the hospital.”

As 2019 rolls on, Smith said the department’s fleet situation is of utmost priority. For several months now, the only fully operational vehicle in the fleet is the high-priced Pierce Quint ladder truck.

The 1998 Freightliner pumper truck has been out of service since early October, and there’s no timetable for its return since a necessary computerized part must manufactured. The part will come from Allison Transmission in Springfield, Smith said.

Robbie Smith

Robbie Smith

“It controls the motor and transmission and tells the rest of the truck what it can do,” he said.

There has already been an unusually lengthy wait for the part to be built.

“I have no idea why, but it’s very frustrating,” Smith said. “I’ve already made some phone calls to see if there’s anyone else who can come up with this, but they’re just not out there.”

Meanwhile, the 2008 Pierce Saber pumper purchased from a department in Iowa in November still hasn’t gone out on a fire call due to a faulty pump system. The vehicle allegedly passed a pump test (and Houston was provided official documents to that effect), but in reality needs at least significant repair, and possibly major.

The Houston City Council recently authorized an expenditure of up to $23,000 to get if fixed, and repairs should take place soon (possibly even this week). Smith said the hope is that repairs will cost substantially less than that total.

The work will be done by Rescue Repair Inc., out of Festus.

“What we’re being told is it’s the impeller and shaft,” he said. “We’re only going by what they saw when they put a camera way down inside and were able to see what damage there was. It could be that the whole pump system needs to be replaced.

“But it’s fortunate that we caught this, because now that we know what Rescue Repair found, we know there could have been a catastrophic failure. Had we gone to using the truck without verifying the pump status despite being shown that it was certified, it could have imploded inside and we would never have known what was going to happen.

“But obviously, this is something that needs to be fixed.”

Smith said there is ongoing discussion with the sellers regarding compensation for repair costs.

“There are still talks between our attorney and their attorney,” he said. “We’ll see where that goes, but we’re going to get it fixed so we can get it in service.”

One personal equipment improvement the department is making is the replacement of outdated air packs. Smith said six should arrive in February and another six sometime later this year. The new packs will last 15 years.

Firefighting gear

Firefighters’ outfits hang at the ready inside the City of Houston fire station.

“That’s a big safety improvement for the people in the department,” Smith said, “for being able to go inside any type of environment.”

Training planned for 2019 includes an aircraft firefighting class in March, put on by the Missouri University Fire Training Institute in Columbia.

“It covers any type of aircraft emergency, whether it’s helicopter or fixed wing,” Smith said.

MU instructors will also conduct water shuttling and basic pump operations, Smith said, and basic firefighter training is planned for younger personnel.

The City of Houston Fire Department has several officers. Along with Smith, there are assistant chiefs Jon Cook and Jeremy St. John, captains Don Gaston and CJ Moore and lieutenants Bobby Bell and Joey Moore.

“Our hope is that someone within the command staff will always be available to respond,” Smith said.

•Structure fires: 5

•Motor vehicle accidents: 5

•Landing zones: 17

•Electrical fires: 4

•Lift assists: 2

•Propane odors/leaks: 12

•Fire alarms: 12

•Carbon monoxide: 2

•Smoke investigations: 2

•Dumpster fires: 1

•Grass fires: 2

•Vehicle fires: 3

•Assist other city departments: 4

•Total responses: 71

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