Does Houston have enough firefighters to protect its residents?

Flames, floods, and gunfire. Over the past decade, America's fourth-largest city has been consistently, often painfully, plagued by each.

And yet, despite a population that's grown substantially, fewer first responders are in place to react and rescue when crisis strikes.

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The numbers are stark and alarming.

In 2010, the City of Houston had 4,100 firefighters and paramedics, according to their union, charged with answering an estimated 220,000 calls. 

12 years later, the Firefighters Union tells us Houston FD is fielding just more than 3,600 first responders to contend with nearly 500,000 calls for service - a more than doubling of the emergency workload.

A side-by-side comparison of staffing between the nation's 3rd and 4th most populous cities is also telling. For example, Chicago deploys 4,500 firefighters and EMT's to cover 234 square miles. Houston has 900 fewer responders on its payroll to cover 665 square miles, almost three times the territory. 

"We are absolutely at a breaking point, in fact, we are way beyond a breaking point," said Marty Lancton President of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association.

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Lancton says the fatigue his members continue to suffer is psychologically damaging and unsustainable.

"The rate of substance abuse, PTSD and exhaustion, and the absolute worst morale we've seen in the history of the Houston Fire Department is real, right now, today," said Lancton. "We don't have enough firefighters to fill the spots for minimum staffing."

"It's happening everywhere and all we can do is keep an eye on each other and be there for them," said HFD veteran Mike Phillips. 
"Most of the time it works, but occasionally they slip through the cracks."

Phillips should know. He's recently retired after serving the citizens of Houston for four decades, rising to the rank of HFD District Chief.

No longer a City employee, Phillips is now willing and able to speak freely.

"What you usually see in the media is generally the last soundbite you get from the Mayor or the Fire Chief and that's not the whole truth," said Phillips. "The truth of the matter is they are understaffed, underpaid, overworked, and it's come to a head where people just can't take it anymore."

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Phillips says brutal overtime demands and deteriorating conditions have triggered an onslaught of departures.

"The near future doesn't hold much hope for Houston Firefighters and they are leaving at a rapid rate. This year in 2022 we lost 259 firefighters and 153 of those were young. Even though the administration says all the stations are open, there is somebody at the station, but there is apparatus just sitting there idle with nobody on them," said Phillips,

Chief Phillips believes the shortages are compromising public safety.

"When you don't have enough crews out on the street that means there is going to be a delay in help for the citizens that call for us," said Phillips.

Based on the hard numbers recorded by the union, Lancton's assessment is jarring.

"I think this administration has tried to destroy a world-class fire department from within. If you don't have them, the men and women to respond to you on your worst day, who do you have?" asked Lancton.

Asked if Lancton’s statement was hyperbole, Phillips responded, "No. That’s a fact."


For local taxpayers who wonder it is feasible for first responders to do more with less, Phillips offered a suggestion.

"Go visit fire stations and speak to them and find out what the real truth is, and then they will know what kind of crisis we are in," said Phillips.

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Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena disputes the half million "calls for service" reported by the firefighter’s union claiming the total in 2022 was around 384,000, citing strictly runs by ambulances and engines.

What concerned FOX 26 is the HFD activity Pena neglected to list, but the union documented, including hazardous material units, arson investigators, special events service, ladder trucks, wildfire suppression teams, specialized rescue squads and deployments by command staff.

Pena blames the cancellation of cadet classes following the 2018 passage of "Proposition B" for the department’s chronic understaffing.

However, the voter-approved measure granting firefighters pay parity with police was barely in effect before it was suspended by a State District Court Judge and has been locked in litigation ever since, undermining the claim that Prop B has been a constraint, financial or otherwise, on HFD recruitment or training over the past three and a half years.

Pena also claims the Department had attrition of 179 firefighters in 2022 and says that number is only slightly above what his staff considers normal.

Pena concedes the department is understaffed by at least 270 firefighters and the workload has increased substantially since 2017.