Leadership, News

Massive No-Confidence Vote on Houston’s Fire Chief

Thousands of firefighters sign a support of resolution

Robert Downen, Houston Chronicle with permission

HOUSTON (Houston Chronicle) – More than 3,000 firefighters have signed a resolution rejecting the leadership of Fire Chief Sam Peña, the Houston fire union announced Monday.

Though the “no confidence” resolution by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association is non-binding and Mayor Sylvester Turner is the only person who can remove the chief from his position, the move marks the latest development in the increasingly fraught relationship between Peña and the Houston Fire Department’s rank-and-file.

Association leadership said nearly all of HFD’s roughly 3,900 firefighters are members of the union, and that the 3,000 signers of the no-confidence resolution represent those who traveled to union headquarters to sign the resolution, rather than the result of a “yes or no” vote.

Peña responded forcefully to the announcement, calling it unfair and saying he stood by the direction of HFD under his leadership.

“I am always willing to be held accountable as long as it is fair and based on facts,” the chief said in a statement. “The fact is that we have accomplished more to improve conditions in just two and a half years since I arrived here than had been done in the last 20 years prior to my arrival.”

Turner also accused the union of engaging in political tactics amid its ongoing fight with the city over pay parity issues.

“He is doing a great job for the Houston Fire Department and an excellent job for the City of Houston, Turner said in a statement. “What the union is doing is 100 percent political and I am certain that the public will see it for what it is.”

Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena speaks during a press conference about Prop B on Friday, May 3, 2019, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

For more than a year, the union has been entangled in a public fight with Turner over pay raises, following a breakdown in contract talks. That led to last November’s Proposition B pay parity referendum in which voters said the city should pay firefighters the same as police of equal rank and seniority. A judge later declared Prop B unconstitutional.

Likewise, firefighters have become increasingly vocal about their frustrations with Pena, who Turner appointed to lead the department in 2016.

At the core of the union’s complaints are 11 issues, including what the union says are failures by Peña to adequately staff or fund the department, and his support for a change in HFD staffing patterns that Peña has said would help save the department money without seriously affecting response times.

The plan would move HFD to a three-shift model, which Pena says would allow firefighters to work the same 20 24-hour shifts that are required every 72 days under the current, four-shift structure. In some weeks, firefighters would work extra shifts. In other weeks, they would have more time off.

In its statement, HPFFA also accused Peña of “open campaigning” against the union over Proposition B.

HPFFA President Marty Lancton said the vote showed a clear lack of leadership at HFD.

“This historic vote reflects the hope of Houston firefighters that our fire department can be improved despite the loss of confidence in the fire chief,” Lancton said in the statement.

The union also criticized Peña over cancer prevention issues that predate his arrival in Houston. For years, the union has warned that its members faced exposure to carcinogens, and last year the Texas Commission on Fire Protection opened an investigation into the concerns.

Since then, some of HFD’s busiest stations have had their exhaust systems upgraded to remove exhaust from the diesel engines firetrucks use. Peña said last month that he would like every one of the city’s 100 or so fire stations to be updated with the exhaust systems by the mid-2020s.

He cited those plans in his response to the union’s no-confidence vote, and said that he was “shocked” when he learned the extent of the problem after arriving in Houston in 2016.

“My focus is now, and always has been and will be, on the safety and well-being of the public and our firefighters, and I remain dedicated to continue my work for the benefit of both,” he said, listing various investments and initiatives aimed at firefighter safety.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the “no-confidence” resolution is consistent with the union’s ongoing complaints about Turner. He said that, as frustrations over Prop B have boiled over, some in the union likely have started to view things through a political lens, and now see Peña as a “surrogate” of the city’s current administration.

“This is at an extreme, but it’s not all that surprising because Peña is (viewed as) Turner within the fire department,” he said.