Houston Fire Department district leaders call for vote of “no confidence” in department chief

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Nearly all of Houston Fire Department’s district chiefs signed a letter criticizing the department’s leadership; the letter was submitted to the fire union president Sept. 3.

95 of 105 Houston Fire Department district chiefs signed the letter, which calls for members of the union, known as the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, to vote on whether or not HFD Chief Sam Peña is adequately leading the department.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, issued a statement criticizing the letter as a politically motivated stunt. The mayor and the union have been caught in a two-year-long public dispute over failed contract negotiations and a legally embattled ballot proposition demanding equal pay between Houston Police and Fire Departments.

The letter, addressed to HPFFA President Marty Lancton, states Chief Peña has done little to advocate for safe equipment and conditions for members of the Houston Fire Department.

“Our fleet has progressively deteriorated and has become unsafe for our members to operate,” the letter states. “It is now normal to have apparatus out of service for hours upon hours which results in delays or inadequate responses to emergency calls.”

At a Sept. 3 press conference addressing the vote, District Chief Mo Davis said aging equipment and high cancer rates among firefighters interfere with the department’s ability to perform adequately.

“It’s nothing personal,” District Chief Mo Davis said. “Our biggest concern is we want to protect the citizens. We’re in hurricane season. It’s been three years, and we hadn’t done anything to get better.”

The union is expected to hold a “vote of no confidence” sometime in the next week, HPFFA attorney Troy Blakeney said. If a majority of respondents feel that Chief Peña is unfit for the position, he will not be automatically removed, Blakeney said. The vote is meant primarily to draw attention to perceptions of department leadership among union members.

Legally, a decision about the chief’s continued employment must be initiated by the Mayor, Blakeney said.

In a statement released Sept. 3, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he supports the chief.

“I have every confidence in Chief Sam Peña. Not only is he doing a great job for the Houston Fire Department, but he is also doing an excellent job for the City of Houston. What the union is doing is 100 percent political and I am certain that the public will see it for what it is,” Turner said.

Peña also responded to the call for the vote, and said it shifts focus away from the positive changes the department has made in the last two years within a tight budget.

“The continued strategy to discount and discredit the positive work this administration has done is divisive and unnecessary. I know that at the core of their discontent is the union’s inability to negotiate a contract for its members,” Peña said.

In May and June 2019, the Fire Department received one new high pressure engine for high-rise fires, 10 new pumper trucks, five new ambulances and 20 “gear washers,” which are used to extract carcinogens from firefighter bunker gear.

While the Houston Fire Department has received new equipment over the last two years, District Chiefs said at the press conference that they have not seen significant improvements. A 2016 study of the department found 36 front line engines were over 10 years old, and all 17 reserve engines were over 15 years old. Seventeen of the 38 first line ladder trucks were over 10 years old, and all of the reserve ladder units were over 15 years old.

Editor’s note: this post has been updated for clarity.

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Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.
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