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Safety, Diversity is Top of Mind for New HFD Chief

Safety, Diversity is Top of Mind for New HFD Chief

In his introductory news conference, Terry Garrison said his top priorities are firefighter safety and promoting cultural diversity through recruiting and training. [AP]

The Houston Chronicle via YellowBrix

August 26, 2010

HOUSTON, TX – Terry Garrison, a tall man with an almost constant grin, is an experienced and well-educated administrator whose management style draws on openness and inclusiveness, say fire and police officials who have worked with him.

On Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker presented Garrison, 52, who until Monday was interim chief of the obscure Daisy Mountain Fire District outside of Phoenix, as her choice for Houston’s next fire chief.

Parker called Garrison the "complete package,“ noting he has worked in the fire stations of small departments, managed a multimillion-dollar operation during an earlier 30-year career with the Phoenix Fire Department, and as an academic has critiqued decision-making by command staffs across the nation.

“I wanted someone to come in that had a different perspective, that was willing to re-think why we do things, how we do things, and if there’s a way to do better,“ Parker explained. “My belief was, it was really time for a fresh approach, for new eyes and an outside perspective.”

Garrison said his top priorities are enhancing firefighter safety by better risk analysis regarding when to enter burning buildings and promoting cultural diversity through recruiting and training.

“I want to instill that risk management piece and make sure we’re being safer,” said Garrison, who is expected to be confirmed by City Council next month. “The second is the cultural diversity issue. For me, it’s more about inclusion in the fire service and creating a culture that identifies and accepts change.”

Garrison said he was concerned by racial incidents at the department as well as sexist graffiti aimed at two women firefighters at a northeast HFD station, and he intends to make multicultural training and recruitment a priority.

Parker was displeased with what she characterized as mishandling of the investigation of treatment of the women firefighters, which led to the resignation of the former chief, Phil Boriskie, in January. Acting Fire Chief Rick Flanagan was one of the finalists for the job. A simple message

“The message is that kind of behavior will not be tolerated, absolutely,” Garrison said. “We have found that a greater diverse fire department provides a better service to the community. It is often said that a department ought to look a lot like the community does in its diversity.”

Garrison has reviewed reports of the deaths of two firefighters who died in a burning home last year without wearing all of their safety equipment, and said he will stress that supervisors follow existing safety procedures. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession, he said, noting that more than 100 firefighters perish across the nation each year.

However, he was emphatic about not changing the department’s controversial "fast attack“ procedure of entering burning structures to search for "savable“ victims, and keep fires from getting out of control.

The Houston Fire Department has been criticized several times for that philosophy after the deaths of seven firefighters, including three captains, in the last decade.

“The best time to put out a fire is when it’s small and inside the structure “ Garrison said. "So, we’ll continue to go inside fires. We’ll go in smarter, we’ll go in safer, and we’ll do something we and a lot of fire departments in the country aren’t doing — we’ll actually have a plan to get out.“ Union chief hopeful

Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighter’s Association, said Garrison comes to Houston with an impressive résumé and solid recommendations. He predicted that Garrison, an outsider whose past jobs were in Oceanside, Calif., and as assistant chief of the Phoenix Fire Department, will do fine as long as the change he brings to the department is based on actual need.

“The mayor wants a change agent. We’ve heard the word ‘change’ a lot,“ Caynon said. "If it’s change for change’s sake, its an irresponsible way to lead and a dangerous way to lead in a profession like ours. But if it’s changes based on reality, then I don’t think you’re going to find a lack of acceptance.“

Garrison was well-liked at the 130-person Oceanside Fire Department, but resigned after two years in December 2009, saying family issues required him to return to Arizona. Local press coverage quoted the mayor as saying Garrison quit after he was asked to trim nearly $1 million from his budget.

However, fire union president Jeff Specht said Garrison’s departure more likely was a combination of family and work issues, noting that "meddlesome“ city bureaucrats constantly were "micromanging“ the department.

“He was probably one of the best labor management chiefs that Oceanside has had,“ said Specht, who is president of the Oceanside Firefighters Association. "He truly has an open-door policy. He brought a labor rep in on virtually every decision made, from policy decisions to training. It was a big deal for him to make sure we were involved in the process of any decision that affects our jobs at the fire station.“ ‘Team player’

Frank McCoy, the chief of police in Oceanside, praised Garrison’s character, his affinity for working with others in the public safety field and his passion for the job.

“He’s a team player, he has the willingness to work with other department directors, and he’s also very passionate about fire service,” McCoy said. “He’s going to ensure the department provides the best and highest service quality to the city of Houston.”

Garrison holds a degrees from three colleges, including Arizona State University, and has completed management courses at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


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