Episode 3: Houston Fire Department and Houston Police Department

This is the third podcast in our series of real-time discussions centering around the COVID-19 response in jurisdictions throughout the United States. In this session, we take a close look the response efforts of the Houston FD and the Houston PD with key members of their personnel:  Assistant Chief Michael Mire and Deputy Chief Charles Martin from the Houston FD and Sgt James Turner from the Houston PD.  Our discussion will explore the many struggles and triumphs experienced by both agencies and how the FD and PD have been able to combine their efforts and work together in this crisis. The Houston FD will also share their experience of successfully standing up their first Incident Management Team. Finally, we reflect on how their participation in Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management / Unified Command (MGT314) course prepared their agencies for this response effort.

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: Welcome to the disaster management podcast series. Each episode features subject matter professionals discussing strategies and techniques for Emergency Managers and policy makers to consider as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. This series is brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center.

Heather Crites: Hello and welcome to the third podcast in our COVID-19 Response series. Kris Murphy and Heather Crites are your hosts for today’s podcast. My name is Heather Crites. I am a Training Specialist with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and primarily responsible for our Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management Unified Command course, also known as MGT-314. For those of you listening, who are not familiar with MGT-314 this course focuses on applying the essential incident command processes required for all-hazards incidents. Participants exercise as part of an incident management team using the all-hazards planning process to manage the response to four different simulation-based scenarios.

Kris Murphy: And I am Kris Murphy. Many of you will recognize me from the MGT-314 program, as well. I’ve been a Project Coordinator with TEEX for about eight years now and have interacted with many of you listening during your week here in College Station. Also joining us today is Assistant Chief Michael Mire, Deputy Chief Charles Martin, both with the Houston Fire Department, Sergeant James Turner with the Houston Police Department. Before we have you gentlemen introduce yourselves, I want to take a second and give the listeners an idea of what we’re gonna talk about today. We’re gonna take a look at how the Houston Fire Department has responded to COVID-19, talk a little bit about the struggles and some of the battles they’ve won along the way. We’re also going to look at how the Houston Police Department has responded, and then how you have responded together, how your response has overlapped. Finally, we’re going to talk about MGT-314 and how that has prepared you for this moment. Why don’t we start with You Chief Mire.

Michael Mire: Hello friends and colleagues. My name is Michael Mire, an Assistant Chief with the Houston Fire Department. I began my career in the fire service 24 years ago in New Orleans and has been with HFD for the last 19. I’ve spent my entire career in Operations and special operations, working in fire stations and still promoting in the command staff, where I’m currently assigned to professional development and Emergency Response.

Charles Martin: I’m Charles Martin. I’m a District Chief with the Houston Fire Department. I’ve been here 35 years and now over the newly-formed Operations Group for the last 18 months, which supervises our TIFMAS program, the Marine unit, our drone program, and the development of Incident Management teams.

James Turner: Sergeant James Turner with the Houston Police Department. I’ve been working for the department for 35 years. My current assignment is in the Special Operations Division, Catastrophic planning, and, to make that more clear, that would be similar to the planning section in most organizations, but we’re also the driving force for Emergency Management at the Police Department.

Kris Murphy: Chief Mire, we’ve been working together the past year to get your District Chiefs through the MGT-314 with the goal of standing up your first IMT. I understand that has been accomplished. Tell us about the process and where you are today with that.

Michael Mire: It’s been quite a process. Houston, being the third largest Department, comes with its own set of challenges. We protect the diverse city in terms of demographics, zoning, commerce, and industry that results in a system that continues to grow in complexity, density, and size. This is exacerbated with an increase in events that aren’t loyal to political boundaries, and these events I’m referring to are the type one and three incidents, such as domestic terrorisms, we’ve seen school shootings, natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Imelda, and the Tax Day Floods, and the one we’re working through now, The COVID-19 Pandemic This has required us to change the way we’ve done business for over 150 years and consider the formality of IMTs as recognized by FEMA and taught by TEEX and so we really had to change the culture, and that includes supporting the concept of progress and incident management teams and pushing our deputy chiefs and district chiefs and support staff through the 314 class. The deputies are complete. They have all worked through the 314 class. A significant portion of our support staff has completed it, and we’re now working through our District Chiefs. And this work in progress is what enabled us to stand up our first IMT of significant size and function During the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heather Crites: Sergeant Turner, does the police department have an IMT?

James Turner:  We do have an IMT. We too have faced some challenges with the COVID-19 response that unlike the 314, although we’re doing all of those same functions that were presented in the training, it’s done in a virtual environment. You know, we’re not in the same room. We’re not meeting face-to-face. Social distancing and things of that nature have posed challenges in this area because we found that it makes the communications less than what they would be if we were actually all in the same room, you know, doing the doing the things that we normally do when we’re running an emergency situation. We do have an IMT. It consists of a Logistics piece, Ops, Intel, and, of course, safety and medical– it’s very large. And a department this size — we’re the fourth largest Police Department in the country — You just can’t do anything small, everything is big.

Heather Crites: And Chief Mire, you mentioned that you guys have stood up your IMT as well. Are you working virtually?

Michael Mire: It’s a multi-dimensional process. We have daily meetings early in the morning with our command staffs and incident management team, and we have the space to maintain social distancing and all of the recommendations given by the CDC. Then the afternoons and through the weekends, we all we do have virtual meetings through various apps that we’ve incorporated here in the city. And so, it’s worked quite well during the process. I’ll pass it over to Chief Martin, because I know he has some remarks that can add some more perspective to what we’re discussing now. I think one of the things that has been asked about was what precautions we had taken for our Command Room. Long before city and the region had gone to upgrade to the CDC, we actually had done temp checks twice a day, we have a hand wash station, we had a social distancing in the command room, and then there was a

voluntary suspension of side jobs to keep us all from being infected. We were all working seven days a week.

Kris Murphy: No doubt about it. We’ve heard that story over and over again from folks we’ve talked to around the country. Have you had any significant loss and personnel from the Fire Department side or the Police Department side?

Michael Mire: On the fire department side, we’ve been quarantining members since the end of March, and I think on our worst day we had over 206 members quarantined at one time–either in a hotel or self-quarantined at home. We had exposures in the field, and we had exposures at the station–people coming to work sick. We also had instances where they would respond on motor vehicle accident or have a CPR in progress–it was not a COVID-related scenario–and find out that they have treated a COVID-positive person. We started following CDC guidelines on the 48 hours prior to going symptomatic and that sometimes caught a couple crews at shift change.

Heather Crites: So, looking to the future, how do you think that’s going to impact, you know, post pandemic normal as far as people coming to work sick? Because admittedly, I think we’ve all come to work not feeling a hundred percent.

Michael Mire: You know the pandemic hit us at the same time that everything blooms in Southeast Texas, so normally this is just when everybody sniffles from the allergies. You know, people came to work thinking hey my allergies flared up, or my neighbor’s Ligustrum got me as I came to work this morning. I think people are starting to realize, like you said, we come to work to work and we don’t normally sit at home thinking we’re sick and it’s had to change our thought process at the station. We’re now doing temperatures at the station at shift change, stations are being cleaned in the morning, today, we have a decon task force that’s going out with a stronger product cleaning stations and apparatus.

Kris Murphy: Sergeant Turner, what added precautions are you having to take to keep your police officers safe, but able to do their jobs effectively?

James Turner:  I’m gonna offer a little bit of background, and then I’m going to get into that so that you understand the size of what we’re dealing with. The COVID-19 response obviously required us to come up with a medical response that law enforcement is just not really accustomed to doing, so there was a lot of examination of what the Fire Department was doing with their personnel and how we could best, you know, protect our personnel at the same time. But to give you an idea, since this incident started we put some protocols in place dealing with travel, you know, has the employee travel to the place that, you know, they would be at risk? Should they be quarantined for some period of time? And as you recall in the beginning, that’s really how it all started. But since it started, we have quarantined 586, we currently have 56 in quarantine, we have 43 confirmed cases of COVID infection, and it’s been a big deal. The medical piece has been a big deal. So, we have instituted protective gear–officers required to wear masks everywhere outside of their office or outside of their patrol vehicle, and if they’re going into a situation that’s actually going to put them at greater risk, then an N-95 would be required and protective gloves and things like that. We have altered our arrest policies and procedures to use the court system in a way where maybe we don’t incarcerate the person at this time for nonviolent crime, but we still charge them with the offense. It’s a way to reduce exposure. We’re doing those things. And I believe that it’s helping.

Kris Murphy: Chief Mire, same question to you.

Michael Mire: That’s another culture change that we’ve had to incorporate into eight-shifting. Firefighters are known for working in teams, and this is a time where we’re asking them not to do that. Where you would have people be, as we say in Houston, touch hogs–where everybody wants to work and get their hands on what’s going on, involved in what’s going on we’re asking them to stop, slow down, and only send one person in as a recon to see what’s going on and work with the patient. That way there would only be threat of exposure to one person, as opposed to an entire EMS crew and engine crew. That is very unusual in the fire service, and we’ve had some growing pains. That was quite a change. Another is life inside the fire station, where we would all congregate and live and work together as a team and family and eat together. Now we’re having to ask them to do that in shifts to maintain social distancing and reduce the threat of exposure. So, we’re working through it. I’ll tell you most of our exposures have been from what we call friendly fire—other firefighters and not so much from the public, and it’s because of that culture that we’re having to adjust.

James Turner: This is Sergeant Turner, and I want to inject just one more thing. We are holding our roll calls with our officers outdoors, so they can social distance. Whereas in the past, it would be in a building-it’s a much smaller room with people sitting side-by-side. So that’s one way we’ve also addressed this issue.

Heather Crites: How do you think the response for the city of Houston is going? Do you have the resources you need being such a big city with a very large population? Chief Mire, let’s go ahead and start with you on that one.

Michael Mire: I believe the city’s response is going quite well. We’re at a point now where operations is becoming more of a routine, which is good. The complexity of a novel virus and the size of our city brings inherent challenges in mitigating such a response. I don’t believe anyone really understood the magnitude that this pandemic would grow. So we had some challenges in response–maintaining PPE supplies, we had a 30 to 60 day supply of many things but knowing whether or not we had additional supplies in the pipeline should would liquidate that at a faster burn rate, the prevention of exposure and postvention when our members contract COVID or we believe there’s an exposure. That was quite an adjustment. And then, what are the long-term costs and effects of this? I mean the threat and reality of COVID-19 grew faster than what the CDC could publish recommendations for and faster than we could develop operational plans and procure products and services that we needed. And on top of this, we still had daily calls for service. In Houston, our daily call volume is over a thousand runs a day. The pandemic added another layer of demand on an already stressed system. So we had to work quite fast, and with the formation of our Incident Management Team and the training they received, we were able to process all of that information and produce good response plans that addressed a lot of the things I’ve mentioned. We’ve had strong collaboration with HPD’s Command Staff. Standing up our IMT was critical and has really been the catalyst for such a strong response to the pandemic. A couple weeks ago, we created a cohort with what we call the big seven cities here in Texas–Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and a few others, and we’ve been able to compare our results with each other. And I’ve got to say that I’m quite proud with how well the city has responded especially the Fire Department, our incident management team. Because we’re on par with our neighbors in the state of Texas, and that’s something we’re quite proud of, and I think it’s a testament of the work a lot of our firefighters do.

Kris Murphy: Chief Martin, what do you have to say?

James Turner:  The interesting part about our Incident Management Team has been that we have brought, I think we talked about this a little bit earlier, you know, we talked about a Unified Command. We’ve actually brought different divisions of the Fire Department that never worked together, ever, into one command setting, they’re on daily IEPs, and we have a firefighter support network in our Public Affairs division that never works with infection control. And so today on our Incident Action Plan, you’ll find that we have a decon group servicing fire stations, we have our firefighter support network taking care of quarantined members, we’ve got infection control monitoring everybody. And what started as a five-person short team 31 days ago, it now has over a hundred people on the IAT today. We are meeting our goals. We have some people that originally came up for this–was logistics people from Texas Task Force, and myself, and another man from TIFMAS. We started helping out our resource management chief, and within the matter of days, we were helping most divisions in the Fire Department with one need or another. We are getting the stuff in, our logistics people have been helping our resource management command, and it’s worked really well. And then when you have such a high demand for stuff, you get a lot of donations. And so with the donations coming in, and the different products that we’re using that are outside our norm, our decon branch has been coming in and creating the material data sheets and how to use the products and pushing that out in information pamphlets and videos to our different fire stations.

James Turner: I want to commend the Houston Fire Department, first off, the policies that they’ve written that I’ve seen have made it much easier for us to develop policies at the police department, because we don’t usually deal with a great deal of medical issues. We usually call the fire department–they send a paramedic, or the medic, and they deal with that. Well in this case, although we’re not providing medical care, we are having to take a lot of the same procedures when running those calls for service that the fire department has to take when they run their calls for service. And that being a large organization, the policies can mirror each other relatively easily. I think things have worked really well in that regard. The policy development at the beginning of this incident was large, and so being able to have others around that we could rely on to help provide and, you know, clearly write those policies has been invaluable.

Heather Crites: And how is the communication been between the fire department and police department? Sergeant Turner, can you expound on that a little bit?

 James Turner: I think it’s gone well. I think any time we’ve needed something or had a question about something we’ve always been able to get an answer quickly and clearly. We have no complaints with that relationship.

Heather Crites: You guys had mentioned the planning process and the incident action plans that are being generated. How is that process enhancing your response?

James Turner: Well at the police department, we are basically doing, you know, the same functions every day, so there’s not had to be a whole lot of change to our action plan. The goals and objectives have remained pretty consistent. The Health Department is running the incident, and they’re running a Unified Command out of the Emergency Operations Center, and so that’s where the fire, police, and health department, other agencies, you know, come together as part of this team, and we feel that the process is working. We have not stood up a department operations center at the police department, per se. We’re running our response out of the Special Operations Division and staffing the test sites and all of those things that we need to do plus continuing to run calls for service and conduct investigations. So that kind of gives you a little bit of an overview, a path working here. It’s a little bit less formal process here than I believe the fire department using.

Heather Crites: Sergeant Turner, before the others chime in, I do have one more question for you from a law enforcement perspective. What has been the greatest challenge with this response?

James Turner: I think realizing and obtaining really the PPE that’s needed to protect our staff and have them use that PPE. You know police officers are used to acting independently, so we are kind of a one-man band quite frequently, so that part’s easy. But, you know, protecting ourselves from an invisible threat, I think to me that has been the most difficult part in them getting those supplies. I have to commend the city overall as a whole in obtaining a lot of these supplies, but early on that was a real challenge. But I feel that just the safety of the staff and having them to understand the significance of the situation, so that they will exercise, you know, the appropriate precautions. And I’m very proud of the officers of the Houston Police Department, because they have really embraced that. But we see them on the news, on the calls, and they’re all wearing their masks and they’re, you know, wearing their gloves and doing the things that they’ve been asked to do, and I can’t help but think that that’s having a positive impact.

Heather Crites: Chief Mire, I’d like to circle back to you regarding the planning process. What challenges are you having? And how has the process enhanced your response?

Michael Mire: I’m gonna pass it over to Chief Martin because I know he had some remarks that can really add substance to your question.

Charles Martin: Our planning guys are probably the most active in our room. We put out a daily IAP to all districts Houston above. We do an extended work operational period over the weekend, and we’re talking about this week going to 48. Because things have slowed down a little bit. We put out a one-page operational brief to the entire workforce, and on that we put our daily safety message. So when we see trends coming out of infection control, we can hit it, so the officers can go over to roll call. Sergeant Turner’s talked a little bit about challenges–our, probably, our biggest challenge is when we go out the door, we do what we’re supposed to do, but fire stations aren’t designed for social distancing. And so, our hardest part has been getting the guys to, for 24 hours, live like the guy next to them is sick, because we come to work every day in a small facility that are just not set up to keep people apart. The planning part, they put out the daily burn rate on PPE, they do a weather report, because we’ve had several weather systems move in in the last 31 days. They do a staffing balance to show where we are from a year ago. And we can show members quarantined versus members on overtime. And then we’ve been able to try to, based on numbers coming out of our infection control office, try to push towards staffing, how to beef up on certain shifts.

Michael Mire: This is Chief Mire. I’ll add a few things to that. I spoke of earlier about culture changes and the way we’ve done business. These IAPs that our planning and IMT has been sharing with the members, we have never shared so much information with our members in the Houston Fire Department. So, this really is something unique, and I’ll tell you the result of that is we’ve managed to reduce the anxiety our members may have in the field, it’s improved efficiencies, and it’s helped with a lot of the prevention and postvention of members contracting COVID-19. So it’s another example of the benefits we’ve experienced in standing up our IMT.

Kris Murphy: So how many of these changes do you think are now going to become permanent?

Michael Mire: That’s a good question. With this being an everyday concept and our response to COVID-19 becoming a matter of routine, I don’t think this is going to be a hard sell. In fact now it’s becoming an expectation in the Houston Fire Department and that’s at all levels of the organization–from the fire chief through the command staff, through our middle management and to the members. This is something they’re growing to expect, so I am very optimistic in what the future of our IMT has.

Kris Murphy: And how do you think operating under a Unified Command has enhanced your response?

Michael Mire: I think the only way to respond to something like this is with a unified response. And with those following one model that’s recognized by FEMA and taught-through and organization like TEEX, I believe it’s going to, and continue to improve our efficiencies and attract attention towards working in a Unified Command.

Charles Martin: I do think that this is our new norm. We have been getting a lot of positive feedback from not only the incident action plan at the chief level, but the daily ops briefing. We test everything we send out, we make sure it’s accurate, it becomes reliable information. We’ve just had really good feedback off of it. And so this may be a good dry run with hurricane season on the horizon for us to take this. We’ve already started talking about how we’re going to do an after-action and figure out what will stay. We’ve worked on some processes through our planning group on timesheet recovery, and they’ve been able to play with the forms and I think that form, and going to our staffing office, and city finance approves it–it’ll be the new norm how we handle disasters in the city when it comes to cost recovery. That’s something we’ve been working on in our team.

Kris Murphy: From what I understand, is the Health Department in charge of this response? And if so, how is that working?

Chris Martin: It’s a unique situation in the fact that, you know, our OEM has been stood up, the medical director for the health department, Dr.Purse is also the fire department medical director. The medical directors themselves are their own group that report to the fire chief, but our safety officer is one of our medical directors, and he sits in on the IMT and gives us our safety message for our brief, and works with our infection control branch to work on what information goes out to the fire department and keeps us current on all CDC guidelines that are coming forward. He’ll tell you–hey tomorrow, 48 hours from now, there’s going to be a change, and this is why and where it’s coming from.

Heather Crites: In leaning forward, you guys have mentioned hurricane season, and different parts of the country are coming into different seasons, such as wildland fire. How has COVID-19 changed the planning for the response of that? I can’t imagine that everyone’s going to be so quick to share resources or establish a base camp.

Chris Martin: We actually are getting feedback from the State of Texas on that. They are making amends to how they normally do practice. In the last 31 days, we’ve assigned our marine unit’s set track to assist with medical supply disbursement. We sent a Texas Task Force logistics specialist of Fort Worth. We do have a TIFMAS deployment in Ozona, Texas right now on a wildfire. We’ve also sent Texas Task Force members that were with set track and then members out of my command to Onalaska during the tornado. So life goes on, and we’ve been adapting to it. And Texas Task Force, they’re following CDC guidelines. They had to mask up when they were in the response area and while they were doing searches. They did temperature checks twice a day and had medical director do an evaluation of their exposure. I know that the TIFMAS, they put less people per apparatus. They didn’t put them in camps, they put them in hotel rooms for isolation. And the county they’re in doesn’t have an active case of COVID-19. So, it’s on the forethought of all our minds, but we can’t stop doing business.

Kris Murphy: The Houston Fire Department has sent nearly 16 personnel over the past two years through the training. How do you think this specific training helped prepare you for this moment? How has it impacted your response, Chief Mire?

Michael Mire: It really has been the catalyst for us being able to stand up an IMT. I’ll tell you the program peak size, they spare no expense in terms of consumables, the instructor rate, they truly do spare no expense and there is no need to recreate the wheel. When we spun up our IMT, we took a lot of the information that we learned and received from 314 and applied it to what we’re doing today. So, there was there was a relevant model to follow, and it allowed us to create an IMT with relative ease. It most definitely prepared us, and the fact that we’ve sent Chiefs from different levels in the organization, it has allowed us to stimulate that culture change at all levels and again making it a lot easier to start up our IMT.

Chris Martin: I’d like to add to that. A majority of the people who rotated through our room are graduates of your program. And when we were given the phone call on a Thursday afternoon to stand this team up within the next 24 hours, not only did we have to find a location, we had to put the room together, and we all thought back to our days in the lab. We were all on the same page where we set it up just the way we trained. And today that’s the way we have a training room that we commandeered on the 6th floor of this building is our command center.

Kris Murphy: You know, I think I can speak for Heather and everybody on our team–that makes us so proud, doesn’t it, Heather?

Heather Crites: Yes, it really does. We play a small part in hopefully preparing the nation for things like this. Any final words of wisdom from any of you for folks that are out there facing the same thing you are?

Michael Mire: Yes, this is Chief Mire. Collaborate with your neighbors within your state and form friendships with your fellow agencies and community leaders before the time comes you need them. That has been clearly evident during our response and the COVID-19 pandemic. Incorporate those friendships and those people into your planning. Stand up your IMTS and draft your EAPs and IAPs when it’s a bright sunny day instead of when a hurricane is brewing in the waters and before pandemic strikes your community. There’s no need to recreate the wheel in doing this. Again, we took our lessons learned from the 314 class and applied them to what we’re doing today. Consider the class as part of your planning process when you attend, and you’ll be far ahead of the game when disaster strikes in your community.

Kris Murphy: Chief Martin?

Chris Martin: I always laugh when I take a FEMA class about the scenarios we’re in. You know, you have a flood evacuation center–the tornado just hit the building. Well, I think I just said a little while ago, last 31 days, life went on we’ve assisted another municipality with a tornado, we’re assisting the state of Texas with a wildfire, we’ve had a small wood fire in the city of Houston where the Texas Forest Service responded to assist us. And so, we just took it in stride and it was like being in the training room at TEEX, where we just said okay, thank you, I’ll take another. And we just went on and on and on and this went on for, we had one week out of five that’s just been really crazy and everybody in the room didn’t flinch. So, I thank y’all.

Heather Crites: Sergeant Turner, did you make it back on the line?

James Turner: Yeah here at the police department, although we’re running a less formal process than the fire department, we’re certainly using the skill set that that is provided by 314. As you know, Kris, we’ve talked about sending more of the police department to 314. I feel that that training helps bring home all of the things that you might see about Emergency Management but not actually have done. And in our case, we have hurricanes and we have major events, and so we get to do some of these things from time to time. But from the police department’s perspective, since so many of our incidents are such short term, you know, you may not use some of those skills for those, but the large incidents–the hurricanes, the pandemic, the plant explosion we had a few months back–those are things where we do use this training extensively, and it really is valuable. For all of you that might be in the law enforcement community, because that’s my expertise, I think networking, like Chief Mire said, with your agencies in your area is extremely important. Because a unified response, you know, we have a unified command, but a unified response in the region also helps to make the citizens more comfortable. They know what to expect when they travel from one County to the next and things of that nature. Make sure that your staff is well protected and trained, as needed. We’ve had a lot of training, and I encourage you to do the same. This incident has certainly brought things to the table that the police department is not accustomed to handling.

Heather Crites: That’s really valuable information, but one thing that we really like to address in our class is the importance of unified command and relationship building before something happens and always two heads are better than one. Because everybody’s experiences are unique and different and everybody brings something to the table. Well gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. We appreciate you sharing your experiences and insights into the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And I would also like to thank all of the first responders for their dedication and countless hours during this time. To find all of TEEX’s online courses, visit www.teex.org.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to the Disaster Management podcast series, brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center. If you have any questions or ideas for future episodes, please contact NERRTC@teex.tamu.edu Or visit www.teex.org for information about training near you.