HFD doubles water rescue fleet, increases water-rescue training after Harvey

HOUSTON – The Houston Fire Department has doubled its water-rescue resources after Hurricane Harvey. The department has purchased and received dozens of new boats and vehicles, which leaders say will save many lives and allow the department to be more self-sufficient. The department has also dramatically increased its water-rescue training.

"I felt that if anyone could make a big impact, I should try to help," said Sr. Capt. Joshua Vogel, a native Houstonian who spent his life around boats and water.

Vogel is now in charge of HFD's new Marine Group, a group formed five months ago that is dedicated to water-rescue efforts and training.

"We've trained approximately 650 firefighters in the past four months on basic boat operations, little water hydrology, how to read the water," said Chris Cullen, the Marine Group's engineer and operator.

Both said each flooding event, especially Harvey, was an eye-opener.

"We couldn't get our assets in, so we had to do the best we could with what we had," Vogel said.

Vogel and Cullen said the civilian effort during Hurricane Harvey saved so many lives and helped to aid first responders in their duties. Vogel said that one of the challenges during Harvey was that the department had trouble getting their limited resources to the places in need.

"We had civilians coming out and helping us to try to get us the equipment we needed," Vogel said. "I had a man named Diesel who brought his jacked-up, high truck and drove us to the Kroger. From there, we took a kayak, canoe and some inner tubes that we borrowed from some neighbors and started doing rescues until a civilian finally brought us a boat that we could use."

Now, the department has doubled its resources.

"After three years of constant flooding in Houston, we realized in the fire department, our job is to rescue people and we needed the equipment to do it as well as the training. So we went out and asked our sponsors in the city and donors for help," Vogel said.

Donors and sponsors helped bring on six new rescue boats, bringing the total number to 13.

"Rescue will use these in swift water to pick people up in potentially drowning situations," Vogel said. "They don't sink."

All of those boats can be transported two at a time in the department's nine new trailers.

The department also got four new wave runners, bring the total to nine.

"What these do for us is it creates a supervisor position, kind of like a safety officer," Vogel said.

In another addition, the department got seven new high-water rescue vehicles. The five-ton vehicles are fully equipped and can easily drive through three feet of water. During Harvey, the department only had one.

Additionally, the department now has 11 more evacuation boats capable of maneuvering through shallow water.

"This is one of our original evacuation boats. During Harvey, we had 10 of these. They were built in 1994. We replaced the engines in 2008. These are the primary workhorses in our boat division," Vogel said.

However, the department has also dramatically increased its training.

"Every day we take the firemen out to a body of water. We teach them how to hook up the boats, deploy the boats and maneuver the boats," Vogel said.

The group designated an 80-person Water Strike Team to focus on water-rescue missions.

"We had 172 fireman apply. And out of that we took the 80 fastest swimmers. 300 meter swim, they went through a front stroke, a breast stroke and a side stroke. That was the easiest swim they'll ever have," Vogel said.

They will then practice in murky water, with resistance, in dry suits and other conditions.

The ultimate goal, Vogel said, is to keep people safe.

"People will spend less time in high water. They'll spend less time outside in the elements and we'll get to an area of safety way more quickly than before," Vogel said.

Cullen said the department is thankful to the donors and sponsors who helped to bring many of these boats on board.

"Without their contributions, we wouldn't have the fleet that we have today," Cullen said.

The department leaders say their teams will be much safer and more self-sufficient.