The City of Houston Fire Department responded to 75 calls in 2019.

Included in the responses were 10 structure fires, 19 vehicle crashes, seven wildfires and an airplane crash. When HFD Chief Robbie Smith looks back at the year, he sees it as an overall success for one primary reason.

“Out of all of these calls, we didn’t have one fatality,” Smith said. “To me, that’s extremely important. Preventing fatalities is our No. 1 goal.”

Last April, voters approved a one-cent sales tax to benefit Houston’s police department, fire department and parks and recreation department, and funds from that have begun to accumulate.

“I can’t thank the citizens enough for that,” Smith said, “and we’re going to prove to them that we’re going to do everything we can to spend the money properly.”

Smith, 46, began duties as HFD chief at the beginning last year. He has for many years worked as a professional firefighter and got his first taste of being a firefighter as 16-year-old cadet with the HFD in 1992.

Smith considers training a top priority, and HFD personnel did lots of it in 2019.

“We brought in multiple training classes,” he said, “and we’re going to do the same thing this year.”

One of the HFD’s equipment-related highlights of 2019 was the addition of a 2008 Pierce Saber fire engine that was purchased from a department in Iowa in late 2018 to replace an ailing 1998 Freightliner engine. The unit was delivered with a faulty impeller and shaft in its pump system, but has performed well since being repaired.

“It’s performing wonderfully,” Smith said. “It has absolutely met our expectations to make up for what it replaced.”

Another big equipment upgrade the HFD experienced in 2019 was the acquisition of 12 new air packs that were purchased with budgeted funds.

“That was a huge step forward in working with the city, for the safety of our firefighters and serving our citizens,” Smith said.

New air packs obtained last spring by the City of Houston Fire Department rest against the front of the department’s Pierce Saber fire engine. The air packs were purchased using budgeted funds.

The plan for the future, Smith said, is to obtain a new air pack each year so a large number of them don’t expire at the same time. The department does the same type of thing by annually buying two sets of bunker gear (specialized clothing, helmets, boots and gloves), which have a lifespan of 10 years.

“It makes sense so they’re not all due at the same time,” Smith said, “and there isn’t a big expenditure to replace multiple units all at once.”

The HFD also adopted a new logo last year, and obtained a state-of-the-art thermal imaging camera.

“The camera was a big budgeted expense,” Smith said, “but when you figure in the lives and safety of our firefighters, that doesn’t mean anything. That camera is priceless.”

The HFD received just short of $27,500 in grant money last year from sources including Walmart, the Missouri Department of Conservation, MFA Oil Inc., the Regional Homeland Security Oversight Committees and the South Central Ozark Council of Governments (SCOCOG). The funds went toward various equipment and supplies.

COMING UP IN 2020

The HFD’s roster currently features 26 firefighting personnel, including eight officers (from chief, to assistant chiefs, captains, lieutenants and a training officer).

Smith said about nine training sessions are scheduled this year with instructors from the University of Missouri Extension’s MU Fire and Rescue Training Institute (MUFRTI). The courses are provided at no cost to HFD, and firefighters with Houston Rural, Raymondville, Licking, Cabool and Summersville departments also participate.

“The three local chiefs get together and discuss what classes we would like to see in this area,” Smith said. “We certainly look at new stuff, along with things that have to be done annually. By bringing those classes here, we’re saving a lot of money. Training is a priority, so we get as many classes here as we can.”

Another training opportunity that HFD personnel have taken part in for the past 30 years is the MUFRTI’s Winter Fire School in Columbia. Six HFD members typically attend the two-day, 12-hour course (which does require a nominal fee).

The day before the weekend fire school takes place, an expo is held with vendors displaying various firefighting apparatus and equipment.

Robbie Smith became City of Houston Fire Department chief at the outset of 2019. He began a lengthy firefighting career as a 16-year-old cadet with the department in 1992.

“I’ll go up there for that, and then the rest of the guys will stay for the school,” Smith said.

Thanks to MDC grant funding, the HFD will soon be equipped with new chainsaws, leaf blowers and other gear designed to allow for wildland firefighting, as well as rapid cleanup in stormy conditions.

“The main goal with that is to make sure streets and roadways are opened up so we can gain access to people at any time,” Smith said. 

For the first time, the HFD will have rescue equipment in 2020. Smith said bids will soon be considered for the battery-operated tools, as well as high pressure and low-pressure inflatable lift bags of varying sizes (that are designed to raise large, heavy objects if a vehicle, person or something else is trapped underneath).

The HFD’s new rescue gear will complement the Houston Rural Fire Department’s existing rescue equipment since it will all be compatible. The lift bags, for example, could be stacked whenever necessary.

“The city has never had rescue tools,” Smith said, “and in moving forward, I see it as very important that we have the ability to provide those services immediately and effectively as soon as a call comes in. Thanks to the tax, we will now have that capability and we’ll be able to continue working together with the Rural department at large-scale rescue operations.”

The ongoing improvements within the HFD are always made with one thing in mind, Smith said.

“We have to keep looking not just at tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, but way down the road to strategically plan out what needs to happen for us to improve,” he said. “Any time you improve, you’re bettering your service to the community, and that’s always our goal. We want the citizens to know that the fire department is on top of this, and that we’re doing everything we can to move forward as promised to them.”

Responses by the City of Houston Fire Department in 2019

•Motor vehicle crashes: 19

•Fire alarms: 12

•Landing zones: 7

•Wildfires: 7

•Structure fires: 6

•Propane, gas, carbon monoxide: 5

•Burning wire odors: 4

•Mutual aid structure fires: 4

•Vehicle fires: 3

•Dumpster fires: 2

•Power lines down: 2

•Chimney fire: 1

•Fuel fire: 1

•Nuisance fire: 1

•Plane crash: 1

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