Houston’s new chief could be a game changer (corrected)

Whenever the third-largest fire department in the country (by their reckoning) gets anew fire chief, it’s worth noting across the fire service. Today, Mayor Annise Parker announced that the Houston Fire Department would be led by Terry Garrison, formerly an assistant chief with Phoenix. Garrison has had one regular chief’s job since leaving Phoenix, in Oceanside, California, but left for “personal reasons” after being forced to make cuts. The union president there said Chief Garrison was the best chief they’d ever had.

Chief Garrison said in his press conference this morning that he has some strong ideas about firefighter safety and customer service. I’ll leave aside questions of customer service, but will say that firefighter safety is a hot issue in Houston this century. You can look at LODD’s per member or LODD’s per fire, but either way you will see that the Houston Fire Department has the worst Line of Duty Death track record in the developed world. Excluding heart attacks and cancers, we can start with Ruben Lopez in 1996, Kim Smith and Lewis Mayo in 2000, Jay Jahnke in 2001, Kevin Kulow in 2004, Grady Burke in 2005, and Damion Hobbs and James Harlow in 2009. Add in a heart attack for Steven Mayfield in 1998 and overexertion/dehydration* for Cohnway Johnson in 2009 and you have one very bad string of incidents. They are an aggressive and competent department. In my opinion their risk management paradigm is a little skewed; Chief Garrison will change that or leave trying. Houston is about to undergo some culture shock from The Phoenix Way.

Ph0enix has done some things that are generations ahead of other big departments. Their incident management, their communications, their leadership in regional response, and their uniform shorts are all wonderful waypoints to the future of the fire service. I’m not too big a fan of some of the other aspects of their culture. I’m not a fan of the language of customer service (the actions are commonsense) because that language degrades our understanding of our purpose. That language encourages us to think of ourselves as a business and with that comes ideas that are not conducive to excellent fire service. And I think their risk management paradigm leans a little too far away from saving property; property is important!

Chief Garrison was the ops chief in Phoenix. He was in charge of the regional response system there (they run a common box alarm schedule across the entire valley). He’s steeped in safety and incident management. Will he try to mold HFD’s incident management system in Phoenix’s image? Will he lead the way toward a regional response system in the Houston metro area? Will he let the boys and girls on the street wear shorts? (They are more concerned about that last one than some of you yankees might guess)

I don’t know, but it’s going to be interesting to watch. He is only the second outside chief in their long history (1836!) and the first one didn’t last long. They’ve been taking a beating in the media (very undeservedly) and have an image problem and a mayor problem. Their morale is in the crapper right now. Terry Garrison has an opportunity hereto really lead this group and air it back up.

Anyone interested in leadership, safety/extinguishment culture wars, and the fire service in general would do well to pay attention.

*Cadet Cohnway Johnson’s death was not attributable to cardiac complications, as originally written and pointed out in the comments. The post has been updated to reflect the error.

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3 Responses to Houston’s new chief could be a game changer (corrected)

  1. Just FYI, there is an error in this story. Cohnway Johnson did not suffer from ANY “cardiac related issue”, he suffered from a heat stroke after being ran to death. I really hope this guy does some good and wish him the best of luck.

  2. Jack R says:

    HFD IS the 3rd largest dept in manpower. However, I agree it’s more reasonable to assess size by companies, which takes out the variable of 3 vs 4 shifts.

    Regarding Mr. Johnson, I have to politely disagree that he was “run to death.” It was a very sad and unfortunate event, but not one resulting from incompetence nor negligence.

    Being able to wear shorts in Houston’s heat and humidity = big deal.

  3. Patrick says:

    I’m not sure HFD is the third-largest by manpower. It depends on how you slice things with LA County and their seasonal and wildland people. We pulled the numbers one night and looked over everything but could not arrive at a satisfactory answer.

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