When Houston Fire Department Senior Captain Joshua Vogel got the call to rescue a truck-load of 12 people stranded in Harvey’s floodwaters, Vogel hitched a ride with a volunteer named Diesel.
All available HFD vehicles were already deployed, but Diesel’s jacked-up monster truck was high enough to make through the water. Vogel used what he could find — a canoe, a kayak, two inner tubes and pool float — to rescue four firefighters and nine Meyerland residents, including a 90-year-old man in a wheelchair, from the Public Works dump truck.
The city’s resources, equipment and personnel were spread thin during Harvey as first responders and volunteers rescued residents in distress using whatever equipment was available at the time. But now that a year has passed, the City of Houston, businesses and the community have made significant investments to expand the city’s fleet of emergency vehicles and equipment.
“During Harvey, many stations had trouble accessing areas with high water,” Vogel said. “A large portion of the flooding we experience in Houston is around 3 feet. Fire trucks max out at a foot and half of water, and high-water vehicles are ideal for water up to 3 feet. Flooding over 3 feet needs a boat, but you need the right boat for the right situation.”
Vogel, a 15-year HFD veteran who conducted high-water rescues in the Memorial Day flood in May 2015, Tax Day flood in April 2016 and Harvey, was tapped to lead HFD’s Marine Group. Vogel and Engine Operator Chris Cullen were charged with gathering data from flood-affected fire stations to assess the high-water equipment needs. As HFD continues to acquire more water assets, Vogel and Cullen are systematically rotating through the stations across the city to train HFD employees on high-water vehicles and boats.
“Our goal is to not only train, but to get as much equipment to the stations so they can do their job efficiently,” Vogel said. “During Harvey, the flooding was so widespread that we couldn’t possibly have enough water assets for every flood-prone area. Now we are trying to correct that.
One of the things we found in the after-action report is that we had trained equipment operators, but many couldn’t make it into work during the storm.”
Vogel said he appreciates and applauds the efforts of volunteers who stepped up during Harvey, but he hopes expanding the fleet of water assets and the training program will reduce the need for volunteers.
“In massive events like Harvey, you are always going to need help, and we are so grateful to those volunteers who worked by our sides and in neighborhoods we hadn’t reached yet,” Vogel said. “But at the end of the day, we are the professionals. We have specialized safety training that most volunteers don’t have. It’s in everybody’s best interests for first responders to have the tools and training to manage future situations more efficiently within our own ranks,” Vogel said.
In the past year, HFD has doubled its fleet of boats and emergency vehicles thanks to dedicated city funds, donations from businesses like KBR, organizations like the 100 Club and the Firefighters Foundation of Houston, City Council Member Brenda Stardig and more.
Read more about the fleet in the sidebar.
In addition to citywide training and asset acquisition, Vogel and Cullen have recruited an 80-person volunteer water strike team that will receive advanced training on water rescue techniques.
Strike team members will continue to work their regularly assigned jobs, but they will be on reserve to deploy when weather emergencies occur. To make the team, candidates competed in a 300-meter timed swim trial.
“We had both men and women firefighters of all ages and rank try out for the team,” Vogel said. “Swimming 300 meters in a pool is the easiest our team will ever have it.
The trials were in calm, clear, blue water, with no turbulence, without wearing gear. In reality, the strike team will be rescuing people from rough, murky water with debris, and they will be weighed down with gear, a life vest, helmet, pulling people out of the water.
It’s a lot of drag and force; it’s not an easy or safe job. I really commend them for volunteering.”
The Marine Group works out of Rescue Command, at the former Station 15 in the Heights, but they borrow boats from various stations for training sessions. A recent boat class with Station 49 met at Alexander Deussen Park on Lake Houston.
The curriculum covered introductory skills about how to hook up a trailer, how to deploy and operate the boat as well as life vest safety.
After the debriefing, the group boarded a flat-bottom aluminum evacuation boat and went out on the water to practice two maneuvers against a stationary post – pressurization and feathering – both of which would help boat operators stabilize the boat to allow safe boarding for evacuees.
“We always take two boats out for safety,” Vogel said. “Boats can be tricky even for the most experienced operators, so you always want to have someone else out on the water in case something happens.”
Cullen was also involved in high-water rescues during Harvey, and he said he would train every firefighter if he could.
“Earlier in my career, I signed up for any training I could find – hazmat, arson, helicopters, water rescues, inspections – you name it.
Now it’s my turn to share that experience and knowledge across the department,” Cullen said. “The firefighters receiving this training, and those who joined the water strike team, are going to be more well-rounded and they will make the city that much stronger by learning a skill to apply in high-water events that continue to happen in our city.”
Cullen said the skill has to be maintained, so this training can’t be “one-and-done.”
“The practical knowledge they earn out on the water is definitely a perishable skill,” Cullen said. “We have to stay on top of it,” he said. “These folks today may not touch a boat until the next time we go out, so they have to get their boater safety card.
We are keeping a roster and we will continue to train as long as we can.
“The water strike team is still in the baby stages. We got our team together and we will start training soon, but we don’t want to let it to sit idle.
We want to take advantage of the forward momentum and we want this team to succeed. Eventually, we hope this team can mobilize and deploy out at the state level and help other Texas cities in need,” Cullen said.
Watch this HTV news segment about donated rescue equipment:
Watch this KPRC Channel 2 news segment featuring the HFD Marine Group: