The response to last week’s winter storm by the Kerrville Fire Department can be summed up in three words … determination, ingenuity and pride.
When roads were challenging for the ambulances to maneuver, KFD administration manned their new brush truck with two paramedics to respond to calls. The brush truck is equipped with 40-inch wheels and is designed to navigate the most treacherous of terrain during a brush fire incident, however, it proved to be invaluable in reaching remote and hillside locations during the ice and snow event as well.
“We took the ambulance as close as we could get it to the patient safely, then the brush truck would get to the location, contact the patient and then load the patient into the truck and take that person back down the hill to where the ambulance was waiting,” C Shift Lt. Billy Williams, who as acting battalion chief on the shift, said.
The praise for the use of the brush truck to access patients continued through all shift battalion chiefs.
“We used them (brush truck medics) as the first point of contact a lot, especially that first day, because it was so slick,” B Shift Battalion Chief Les VanHoozer said. “There were probably six or seven calls per shift where we couldn’t get the ambulance to the residence because of ice, but the brush truck could get there.”
A Shift Lt. Jaran Floyd, also acting battalion chief, explained that the brush truck made impossible situations possible.
“On more than one occasion, we used the winch on the front of the brush truck to help us safely guide patients on stretchers down iced and snowy hills,” Floyd said. “The shear determination to get to every call was amazing.”
In addition to utilizing the brush truck, extra ambulances were put into service to accommodate the large number of calls.
In all, the KFD responded to 547 calls for service from Friday, Feb. 12 through Feb. 19, with at least one crew working 94 calls within a 24-hour shift period.
“We added an additional ambulance during the day and two ambulances at night,” VanHoozer said. “The brush truck was manned by a lead paramedic for that shift and an additional paramedic.”
A Shift response
Floyd described his job as acting battalion chief during the storm as that of an “offensive coordinator,” saying he often was answering two phones, talking on the KFD radio and assigning calls all at one time.
“My job was to make sure our guys could do their jobs,” Floyd said. “I wasn’t really out in the field that much, because we had a number of challenges that required attention.”
On Monday, Feb. 15, Floyd faced the most difficult time, as several of inches of snow had fallen over night on top of thick layers of ice.
“Our ambulances were getting stuck in the snow and sliding on the ice,” Floyd said. “Our brush truck was able to pull out most of the ambulances, but we had to call a tow truck twice. And only one tow company was able to accommodate us.”
On top of that, power outages limited the availability of fuel for the units, so Floyd said he spent time on the phone securing locations that would allow KFD units to fill up and remain in service.
“We were able to get the fuel situation taken care of, but all of this was happening on a day where we responded to 87 calls,” Floyd said. “It just never stopped. There was no resting in between calls, it was solid activity for almost the entire shift.”
Late that evening, Floyd said water damage caused part of roof to collapse at a local nursing home. His job was to facilitate evacuation of the residents of that nursing home to other facilities.
“The facility was able to secure spots for those patients at two other facilities and it was our job to get them safely moved,” Floyd said. “I responded with Lt. Mark Dunning and we created a plan for the evacuation. We reached out to the KPD (Kerrville Police Department) and they helped us with the process.”
Floyd said they were able to obtain use of a second wheelchair-accesible van from First United Methodist church to transport the patients.
“With everything that was going on that night, it was important to get the plan in place and get back to the station and the other calls that were coming in,” Floyd said. “Lt. Dunning and the KPD carried out the mission with precision. That’s the way it was the entire week. Our guys relied on their strength and their training to get through it all and we did. I might be the one telling the story, but our medics and firefighters deserve praise.”
Looking back on the events that took place during the storm, Floyd said the response of his fellow firefighters was inspiring.
“It’s one of those things that was so very difficult to get through, but when its over, all you feel is pride,” Floyd said. “I can tell you am I just so very proud to be part of this department and so proud to work alongside of all of these men and women.”
B Shift response
VanHoozer also praised firefighters and medics on B Shift for pushing through, without sleep or comfort, to serve the public, saying they made him, the department and the community proud.
VanHoozer’s most difficult shift was Tuesday, Feb. 16, responding to 94 calls with roads still icy and temperatures in the single digits. More freezing rain and snow added to the difficulty of responding to emergency calls and by now, many residents had been without power or water for long periods of time.
“We began seeing calls for assistance from people with medical needs that needed to be transported to safety and warmth,” VanHoozer said. “So many different agencies were transporting individuals to the shelters, but many people needed to be transported by ambulance for a number of reasons, such as needing oxygen. We had a large number of these types of transports in addition to our regular medical emergency calls, vehicle accidents and fire calls.”
While only one true fire was reported, VanHoozer said fire alarms were triggered in many buildings due to busted pipes. Once the water started flowing through the system, the mechanics of the alarm system believed a fire was taking place, VanHoozer explained.
“On Tuesday, we were inundated with calls for broken pipes, mostly at commercial buildings and apartment complexes,” VanHoozer said. “I believe we had at least 20 broken pipe calls that came across as fire alarm calls on that day.”
In these instances, VanHoozer said, engine trucks responded and firefighters were tasked with shutting off the water valve to the leak, while dispatchers contacted the propery owners or managers.
“Most of the time when this happens, we try to help get the water out of the building, but we had so many calls, that we couldn’t do that during the storm,” VanHoozer said. “The most important thing we could do for the property owner was to stop the water from accumulating.”
In addition to navigating dangerous roadways and high call volumes, VanHoozer said the generator at the KFD Central Fire Station stopped working. While station itself was part of the rolling blackouts, the generator is in place to keep the temperatures on the ambulances and fire trucks at a safe level, as well as providing power to the electronics inside those vehicles.
“We had a mechanic to fix the generator, but we needed a part. One of our firefighters, Ryan Moss, called his dad, who owns Moss Motors. Ryan’s dad was able to contact the owners ot NAPA Auto Parts and they met our mechanic at the store so that we could get the part,” VanHoozer said. “This type of community collaboration happened often throughout the storm.”
At one point during the storm, VanHoozer said multiple calls were coming in for patients on electronic oxygen machines that were running out of oxygen due to lack of electricity.
“A shelter for patients with immediate medical needs was set up at the VA Hospital,” VanHoozer said. “This was a huge help for the community and we were able to transport them from their homes to safety at the VA.”
VanHoozer, a 36-year veteran KFD firefighter, said he had never seen anything like what the Kerrville community and State of Texas witnessed last week with the historic winter storm, single digit temperatures and icy roadways that lasted more than seven days.
“Everyone did a fantastic job,” VanHoozer said. “They were amazing and I believe it is a miracle that we didn’t have any injuries to our personnel or major damage to our units. I am extremely proud of them.”
C Shift response
Williams summed up his multiple days on shift in a way that was echoed by every member of the KFD that we spoke to.
“I know we were able to get to 100 percent of the people that called for help,” Williams said. “I pray we were able to help 100 percent of the people that needed it.”
Williams worked multiple shifts during the winter storm event, filling in where he was needed. As battalion chief, Williams said that initially KFD was called to motor vehicle accidents and power line issues.
Once motorists began to heed warnings about road conditions, the next wave of calls involved injuries due to slipping on the ice while walking. The final phase of calls were for help due to exposure to the elements and lack of electricity.
“It seemed like as the storm continued, the immediate needs seem to change,” Williams said. “We went where we were needed.”
While on shift, Williams, like all other members of the department, were too busy to sleep, especially early in the week. As the command lead for the shift, Williams said his job was to get firefighters and medics to calls and back safely.
“I kept an eye on them. When fatigue sets in, things can get dangerous, but each of these men and women dug down deep and never batted an eye about taking the next call and they all got home safely,” Williams said.
Williams said he felt a great sense of achievement for the department and also was proud of the effort firefighters and medics put forth during 10 days of onslaught due to weather.
It wasn’t just the sense of responsibility, Williams said, that kept them going, it was also compassion for the citizens they serve.
“As an example, we had one firefighter, Kolten Hughes, who responded to a call for an elderly woman who was running out of bottled oxygen,” Williams said. “He and our new firefighter, Jordan Lehman, took her a bottle of oxygen. When they got there, they found that she hadn’t eaten in a couple of days and her cell phone was not working. They stayed long enough to help get her cell phone charging and start her dinner for her. This is just one example of what our people did throughout this ordeal.”
Williams said signing on for a job as a public servant is a calling, and last week’s challenges were a significant example of why they chose a profession in the fire service.
“The one thing that I would like the community to know is that we are always going to be there for them,” Williams said.
All three commanding officers working the 10-day winter storm event acknowledged the assistance and enthusiasm to help by other agencies, but none more so than the local volunteer fire departments.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteer fire departments,” Williams said. “For example, Center Point and Ingram (VFD) took calls for us like lift assists, or medical alert activation calls, which freed us up to respond to additional calls. A lot times, they could get to these places better than our ambulances could. They even helped get a lady from Center Point to Kerrville for her dialysis treatment.”
The takeaway from each of the men of their experiences leading shifts of firefighters and medics is that they will always remember the teamwork, the pride and the determination to assist the public in a way that has never been done before in Kerrville.