HFD's new chief has internal fires to put out

August 25, 2010 4:07:00 PM PDT
While knocking down fires is the first priority for any fire department, Houston's new fire chief Terry Garrison will have other issues to deal with as well. Garrison calls himself a problem solver. From allegations of racism, sexism and discrimination, Garrison is taking over as head of HFD at a very critical time. For starters, he believes he can make difference by making everyone feel inclusive.

Whether it's a noose hanging in a locker or claims of racism, harassment and discrimination, for the past few years, the Houston Fire Department has been embroiled in one scandal after another. On Wednesday, Garrison put the department on notice and did not mince words when he publicly said bad behavior will not be tolerated.

"I'm concerned about it. I feel I have a plan for that. I feel like talking to the staff, they understand that we just need to work harder and identify what the characteristics, the traits and the values are in the fire stations," he said.

Garrison may be an outsider, but as a self-proclaimed proponent of diversity with more than 30 years experience, he knows the history and culture of the fire service and believes too many firefighters feel disengaged from the organization. That, he says, may explain some of the inner turmoil plaguing the department.

"He has to be stern with his rules. He has to stand by his rules and hold people accountable," said Gaylon Davenport of the Houston Black Firefighters Association.

Some would argue a false perception of a lack of accountability and discipline continue to erode the department's image. Whether Garrison can help turn that around remains to be seen.

With the department at a crossroads, the head of the Houston Firefighters Association believes strategy is everything.

"There are certainly going to be changes when you have any leader, whether they are from inside the department or not. The question is: Are those changes going to be made based on a realistic assessment on trying to make the department better or just change for change's sake?" said Jeff Caynon.

Garrison says he's big on diversity and that includes bringing more women into the Houston Fire Department.

Below is the full statement made by Chief Garrison this morning

    "First of all let me just say thank you very much Mayor Parker for entrusting me with what I think is the most important thing we have to do in the city of Houston and that is to take care of our people. That is what the fire department is really about. We are an organization that reaches out and takes care of the community and that is my goal. I would also like to thank members of council that have showed up and I have already had nice conversations them and they have also provided me with some direction already which is kind of exciting.

    I would also like to thank my members of the staff of the Houston Fire Department. We have a session this morning and I'm getting to know them already and really look forward in working with them. They are leaders in the American fire service. My 33 plus years in the American Fire Service, I have looked at Houston many times to try to better myself and serve my community. So I'm looking forward in working with them.

    My wife, Annette, and I are looking forward to moving to Houston and being a part of the community. We are going to embed ourselves here and be a part of this community whether it's for a year or hopefully five plus years and maybe beyond that. So we are really excited about being part of the community.

    I understand the anxiety that maybe caused by having a fire chief to come from another agency but I understand that firefighters are pretty much the same across the country. We want to serve our community and I think we are going to get together and we are going to solve problems and we are going to meet with the community and really move forward the Houston fire department."

Below is Chief Garrison's response to a question from ABC13's Miya Shay on his experience

    "I was the interim chief in the Daisy Mountain Fire Department for the last several months at the request of the fire chief who found out he was in the last stages of cancer. He asked me to come in and fill in as his fire chief and run his organization for that short period of time. He lost his battle with cancer just a few weeks ago and there was nothing that was prouder for me to serve that community of 90 firefighters. They were protecting a community of a 100 square miles and some really great people. So that was a pleasure.

    Prior to that, I was in California. They had about 130 firefighters in the third largest city in southern California. My wife and I had determined after several years there; it was a family decision. California was just not where we wanted to be.

    I actually started my professional career at the age of 17, before hitting Texas as a crew chief in the U.S. Army. Since then, I've traveled back and forth to Texas for the Texas Engineering Extension Service. I worked for TEEX as an instructor observer and I was able to work with many communities in Texas and I always loved Texas. So for me to come back here is a great honor.

    In Phoenix, I was the operations chief and Phoenix is the next size, following Houston and that is pretty much the largest department I worked for. I was the operations chief there. But while I was in Phoenix, I managed what was called the Regional Operation Consistency Committee and we have a very robust automatic aid system and I was able to lead that committee I was able to serve 28 different agencies and close to 100 fire stations there so I think that is where my greatest experience comes from obviously. I did learn a lot in the small towns that I worked with and I actually got my hands involved with some of the detail but the city of Phoenix and my 30 years there is probably the best preparation I had for meeting the goals for the city of Houston.


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