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Smoke Brewing in Strained Relationship Between Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston City Firefighters

HOUSTON-It appears that the relationship between Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city firefighters is going up in flames fast with the latest hot winds blowing from city hall.

The growing rift with the city’s first responders and the mayor may soon turn into a four-alarm blaze if issues can’t be properly doused between Turner and his city fire crews.

Previously, the mayor and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association have been at odds over the pensions and pay raises, but were attempting to hold civil talks and work out some compromises over time.

 

However, that period of calmness in the eye of the storm appears to be brief and as the eye moves, it appears Houston may be in for a dispute that could bring more gale force winds and rising tides between city hall and fire leaders.

 

Tensions rose again last week between Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and several firefighters after two incidents in which the Houston Professional Firefighters Association said the mayor initiated confrontations, according to news reports.

 

In one particular incident, a fire inspector was working security at a Rockets game and he allegedly refused to shake Turner’s hand and an exchange of word ensued.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, said members of Turner’s detail took the firefighter’s identification and wrote down his information.

 

Allegedly, the heated exchange of words included some words that suggested the firefighter could lose his job over the incident.

 

“The mayor should not use his position of power in which to intimidate firefighters,” Lancton said.

 

Turner responded and spoke to News Channel 2 and said, “If you are not professional and if you are disrespectful, as a city employee, on duty, in uniform then yes, I expect for you to be disciplined.”

 

In another statement, Turner also said: “I respect first responders and all other employees of Houston. I work to earn their respect every day. But more important is what the people of Houston deserve. What they deserve is a unified work force that concentrates on providing public safety and public service…”

 

Adding to the latest drama is a report by Houston Fire Chief Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña delivered to city hall, stressing needs and how his fire departments are pushing the limits on equipment and personnel.

 

According to Peña, first responders are in dire need of new and updated trucks and equipment and that is not helping morale or firefighters ability to serve the needs of the public in times of emergency.

 

Houston has an aging fleet of fire engines and its severe lack of high-water vehicles and rescue boats.

 

According to his report, Peña’s long-term plan calls for an annual $10.9 million investment in 16 new ambulances, nine new fire engines and nine new trucks with ladders and towers attached, every year.

 

To add to the concerns is the need to be prepped for flood and water rescue, like that faced during Harvey’s rains and flooding. The chief want to double the department’s high-water rescue artillery.

 

The fire department has only six rescue boats, ten evacuation boats and a single high-water rescue vehicle, leaving it unequipped to handle a flood even half Harvey’s size, according to Pena.

 

The report indicated that in order to prepare the department to handle an expected flooding event in Bayou City, he wants ten more rescue boats, 20 more evacuation boats and eight more high-water vehicles, costing the city approximately $1.7 million.

 

Peña, who was selected by Turner was sworn into office on December 19, 2016 and came in wanting to make improvement and secure better safety practices citywide.

 

Peña know the needs of a department having been a member of the American Fire Service for 22 years. He was chosen as Fire Chief for his wide experience in both medical and firefighting fields.

 

He began his career as a firefighter with the El Paso Fire Department in 1994 and rose through the ranks serving as a paramedic, media spokesperson, advanced medical coordinator, a member of the Combined Search and Rescue Team, Hazardous Materials & Special Rescue Task Force, as well as the Training Chief for the El Paso Fire Academy.

On top of the department needs and pension-related issues, much of the latest rise in tensions centers around incidents and what they need to prepare to do their jobs and serve the city.

 

The power play between the mayor and the firefighters has undoubtedly left a bad taste in the mouths of Lancton and the firefighters, but Turner remains firm as the city’s top leader, and still appeals for unity.

 

… “Unity requires that employees, especially those in uniform, respect their command structure and stand ready to engage with any law-abiding resident, including the mayor. They must also be ready to respond to any emergency reported by any person. Codes of conduct are in place to emphasize public service. Ninety-nine percent of employees follow them. Violations should not be tolerated.”

By: Darwin Campbell

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