Nathan Lilley is a captain at the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services. Lilley was born in Houston, Texas and remained in the city for most of his life. Lilley obtained a finance degree at Houston Baptist University, but later realized he did not want to dedicate his life to the finance world. As a natural helper, someone who loved to give back to his community, and his background as a personal trainer, Lilley discovered joining the fire department was the right choice for him.
When he first began his training as a fire fighter, Lilley was unaware that there was a paramedics department. After the end of his basic training, he was sent to paramedic school. Lilley takes a few minutes detailing what the paramedic training entails. The topic of the interview then switches to Lilley’s experience with tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricanes Katrina and Ike first revealed to him the significance of natural disasters. Given the intensity of such storms, the fire department needs to prioritize certain units, leaving firefighters to coordinate help on their own. Lilley explains that Katrina and Ike helped stretch normal resources and operate in a different way from the day-to-day operation guideline. Although the experience of past storms can help prepare firefighters for future ones, Lilley admits that he could never be fully prepared for a new scenario, since some aspect is always different. For example, the flooding from Hurricane Harvey required a completely different strategy than the hazards brought by Hurricane Katrina. When warnings of Harvey entered the news, Lilley was off duty in Pearland/Friendswood, an area which received a lot of flooding. To help those in the area, Lilley went out on boats until he received a call-in from the fire department. Lilley was able to enter Houston’s city center with the help of a friend’s truck through back roads – the Beltway had been closed in all directions, as well as I-288 towards I-610. Luckily for Lilley, when he explained his position as a firefighter, those blocking the roads would open up certain areas for him to get through. By the time Lilley arrived at work, Station 49, a lot of other dispatch services were coming through. As a paramedic crew, Lilley’s team was able to split up and combine units to best address situations. Most of the help provided involved evacuating individuals from homes and certain areas. Lilley reflects on one experience in an assisted living home where there was three to four feet of water in the home. Unfortunately, some drowned in such rapidly rising waters, especially for those in wheelchairs. Lilley reveals how hard it was to acknowledge that dispatch units were unable to save everybody. Another tragic component for individuals evacuating in flooding homes was worrying about their pets. In some instances, people had the means to evacuate, but they were waiting for specific resources to help them. Lilley spends a few minutes discussing other issues, such as air conditioning units catching on fire. The significant amount of flooding made in hard for the dispatch units to dispatch close to those who needed help. Lilley recalls that neighborhood communities were extremely helpful in directing the department to those who needed help. In fact, in most instances the communities provided the dispatch units with the most helpful information. However, most of the time, units did not know if the situation called for help evacuating or the need of a paramedic. Lilley spends a few minutes discussing how the department helped evacuees transfer to busses.
Interviewee: Nathan Lilley
Interview Date: July 10, 2018
Interview Location: Houston Fire Department office, Downtown Houston, Texas
Interviewer: Debbie Harwell
INTERVIEWER: This is Debbie Harwell. I’m here with Captain Nathan Lilley from the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services. And it’s July 10, 2018. We’re at the main offices in downtown Houston, and we’re going to talk about Hurricane Harvey.
NL: Alright, sounds good.
DH: So if you wouldn’t mind, please, just for starters, state your full name.
NL: Sure, Nathan Lilley.
DH: And tell us a little bit about when and where you were born and a little bit about your life growing up.
NL: Sure, I was born in Houston, Texas. My dad worked for Brown and Root, so we traveled around a lot. So I’ve lived more places than I can kind of think about but mainly around the Houston area all my life. And I went to Beverly — to B.F. Terry High School. And then from there I went to Houston Baptist University [0:01:00]. And I graduated with a finance degree. And I started off in the finance world, and it was a little constricting for me. And that’s when I decided to move to the fire department. And so that’s where I’ve been ever since, and I really like it. And it fits my personality a little bit better, and I definitely get to help people, so.
DH: So what made you choose the fire department when you decided finance wasn’t for you?
NL: I’ve always been just a helper, a natural kind of people person, outgoing. I was a personal trainer for Memorial Hermann Sports Performance for a long time. So just health and wellness, my uncle was a physician or still is. And so being around [0:02:00] family and friends and my roommates, one’s a dentist. And now, the other one’s an anesthesiologist. I guess I’m just kind of naturally always drawn to helping people. And it — you know how you can just tell how something’s not right for you even though you like the industry? And definitely, the business side has helped me in the fire department working in the EMS administration for some time. But when something’s right for you, you just know it fits. And so when you enjoy going to work every day and you know that you have fun when you get there, but you’re doing something that helps, it’s very self-rewarding and fulfilling. And I like that. That’s what I wanted for myself.
DH: Okay, good. When did you start working for the fire department?
NL: In 2004, I had been out of college [0:03:00] for about a year. And that’s when I went — I switched over after a year, so.
DH: And what training did you go through then at that time?
NL: So we had — well, what’s funny is I didn’t know that the fire department had paramedics. So when we went through, I initially thought the basic EMT and fire department. And then once we got to the end of our career, I said, “Hey.” Or at the end of the training, they said, “Oh, we’re going to also send you to paramedic school.” So I said, “Alright, some extra training to go with it.” And then I learned, “Oh, okay. That’s the next level.” And so that’s kind of what got me through fire school and through EMT school, so it ended up being a little longer than what I had projected but well-worth it in the end.
DH: That’s great. What about any specialty training that you had for [0:04:00] mass casualty events? I don’t want to say catastrophe although Harvey’s pretty much — evacuations, like preparation for something like a Harvey event.
NL: So the fire department does offer a lot of mass casualty, especially if you’re in EMS, being on the paramedic side. We do a lot of the protocols for mass casualty. And once you become an EOP, Engineer Operator Paramedic, you start learning the job above you, which is a supervisor, what I am now. And that job teaches you a lot more about MCI protocols — just how to handle mass casualty events. So you start getting that training a lot earlier, but I think what really took me to a different level is the SWAT. We did the tactical program, and I was in that for quite a long time that we had here with Houston. We worked with HPD [0:05:00] SWAT program. And so I was a tactical medic and then moved to a tactical supervisor when I got promoted.
Being on that side of the training is completely different than my day-to-day operations, because you’re moving a lot with interagencies. You’re working with HPD. You’re working with patrol. You’re working with fire and coordination of EMS. And the way they run things or give you the freedom to run things is a completely different scene, so they kind of leave it up to you even though you’re just — I wouldn’t say just, but a firefighter or the only firefighter or paramedic that’s there, you’re the tactical paramedic. So that training for the last few years really set me off to doing things on my own, coordinating on my own, and not relying on having a full command staff to run a scene.
DH: Wow. Have you ever experienced any earlier [0:06:00] storms here in Houston or elsewhere?
NL: So when I first came, not too long after, you know, Hurricane Katrina — and that was my first real — well, we had Ike. And we had Hurricane Katrina. And those were my first two really big storm opportunities. And during Katrina, I think I worked almost 96 hours straight. They gave us a little break there, so that was eye opening to say the least. And I would say that, because the resources are so taxed at that time, the fire department really doesn’t give you a lot of avenues to think outside the box and help use the best resources to your ability to meet the patient needs. So it went from your day-to-day operations to — I wouldn’t say a mass-casualty type of triage system or put together, because [0:07:00] there’s not, say, 50 — 20 to 50 patients immediately within your reach. But there could be, so you’re kind of prioritizing units and helping coordinate on your own. Because the city’s so stretched from every department. So that was my first go — was Katrina and then Ike. And then Harvey was a good one as well to stretch your — stretch what you’re using and operate in a different day-to-day operation guideline than what you’re used to.
DH: So you feel like those events helped prepare you for Harvey? Like each one builds on the next?
NL: Each one does build on the next. I don’t know if I’d ever say I’m truly prepared, because each scenario is something different. And it’s not quite the same. With Harvey, there was so much flooding that it makes [0:08:00] what we did in Katrina just seem a completely different storm when you compare the two even though they’re both major hurricanes. And it represents different hazards, different terrain and background to kind of put it together. But yes, they do build on each other. And I don’t want to say the more you go through the better you get at coordination and delivering better patient care, but experience does help.
DH: Can you tell me a little bit about prior to Harvey’s arrival? What preparations were you involved in and a little bit about where you were assigned and whatnot?
NL: So initially, right before Harvey, I was off duty. And we — in Pearland/Friendswood is where I lived. And they received a lot of flooding [0:09:00] in that area. So my friends and family, I was helping them on boats up until we received a call-in. And that’s where the President ending up doing a lot of the interviews there in Friendswood. So prior to, I was already in the mode for rescue. And the only way I got out to get to work from where we were at was — one of our friends that was on city council, I ended up running into him. He had a really big truck. And so he kind of navigated the way for my SUV to kind of fit through to get the back roads up to work. Everybody else was stranded. I believe they had the Beltway closed completely down in all directions. And I didn’t know if I would be able to make it to work, but I was going to try. And so I was really close to his truck, and he had a tow chain just in case he needed it [0:10:00]. But I said, “Let’s give it a good effort. Let’s see if we can get there.”
And that’s how I got to work to start Harvey. But I think we have a duty to act sometimes. And so a lot of people that wouldn’t try — but you know that your crew is there and you don’t want to leave them. And so you go the extra mile. And I think I tried 15 different passageways before I started making phone calls to see who could help me get to work, because 288 was completely shut down up towards 610. And it was underwater, and so we had to backtrack. Everybody had to backtrack that way. So that was kind of what was going on.
DH: And when you say you were trying to get to work, were you trying to get to Station 49?
NL: Station 49. And so I’m in the Pearland/Friendswood area for my house, and so getting that far was difficult. But a lot of the roads that they had closed [0:11:00] down when you represent yourself as a firefighter trying to get to work, they end up telling you, “Okay, go this route. Go this route.” And they’ll open — they open it up for you where a lot of the areas had shut off for the public to get through. But you know, they see your badge, and they understand the same problems that we did, so.
DH: Let’s see. Alright, so let’s just talk about your experiences there once you got to Station 49 and some of the rescues that you were involved in.
NL: Sure, so the district chief that I was working for, Chief Robert Branch, he was District 5. And he got pulled down to run Westside Command. And [0:12:00] the wonderful thing about that, working so closely with the chief, is when they called the extras in, we could split up into two different units. And so I end up taking my crew and meeting up with Chief Branch at Westside Command. And he had so many different organizations that were all meeting in the mall of — the Memorial City Mall. So every fire department, police departments, all the rescue trucks, they all — that was kind of the Westside Command area. So that covered all the way to the Addicks Reservoir going out to Highway 6, which was completely under water. So all the rescues were coming in through that side. And from I-10, the Beltway, up until 610 — from 610 to Highway 6, there was quite a bit of flooding through the Memorial area.
So [0:13:00] it — I mean, the city services that were coming through, we had to utilize everything from dump trucks to METRO busses to private ambulances — the dive team. So we were able to meet up with them, hear all the dispatches that were coming through. And then he kind of gave us the liberty to address the fire department needs, EMS needs on top of what was going on and assert ourselves as necessary for whatever was coming up and the problems they were facing. I would say for 24 hours, they — we were running nonstop all day, just constantly going back to back. And what was the beauty of my crew in general that were there, most of them were paramedics, if not military training.
So we were able to split up a lot [0:14:00] of times and combine units, knowing that when we finished that assignment they would come back and redispatch ourselves — just remaining in radio contact. So we would get paired up with, say, a police officer and dive team. And they were able to act as a paramedic to go complete a rescue or a mission that would come in and coordinate. And I would have full trust in them, knowing that they — I could send two guys together with several mixed teams of interagency, and they would be able to handle what was coming their way. But a lot of times, we stayed together. It was only a few times we really had to split up when it was something that was needed.
I have so many stories. It’s hard to try to narrow down what it is that you were there — I think the evacuation played [0:15:00] a big part of what they were trying to get out — get people out. And so that kind of — everybody was coming into this one site all at once, because the water rose so fast. So it went from a few rescues here or there to just being overwhelmed with what was coming in. And so we had to create little triage areas and dispatches once you were out there, so the scene changed. It wasn’t what was just dispatched from the radio.
For instance, we had one elderly man that was needing oxygen, because he had run out. But when we got there, we end up finding a whole first-floor apartment complex that was more of assisted living that didn’t have the nursing capacity. And it ended up changing into just a single rescue to 10 to 12 elderly population that weren’t able to stand [0:16:00] and get — ambulate out of their wheelchairs or what they were doing. So they’re sitting in three to four foot of water not knowing how they were going to get out, but they didn’t have a way to call either. So we didn’t even know that existed until we had got there with the first call thinking it was just someone who needed oxygen when we end up rescuing — or putting on boats and coordinating with dive teams and private ambulances to get those out. And unfortunately, some of those people drowned in those homes, not because they didn’t have someone to rescue. It was just the water came up on the first floor so fast, and they were unable to ambulate. So they’re sitting in wheelchairs. And it was really sad, you know, to see that — that if they could have [0:17:00] gotten out on their own, they probably would have. So you don’t put that — there’s no blame or just saying, “Well, why didn’t they do this?” It was, “If they could, they would, but they just didn’t have the means to, and the systems overwhelmed so fast that it’s things you wouldn’t think about. And we also went to the nursing home. I think you saw pictures that were going online that they were sitting, you know —
DH: In the water.
NL: – in the water. And if you take that scene and you expand it to all assisted living, the — we were moving METRO busses filled with people, because they don’t have the same nursing care. They do have somebody that’s coming to check on them, or they do have some — but they don’t have the personal nurse that’s there to help them. And so those people had a really tough time [0:18:00]. And unfortunately, not everybody made their way out even though we were trying to help them as best as possible. So that became tough to deal with families. And a lot of them, their pets were very important to them. And we just didn’t have the means to handle that amount of, you know, family pets and multiple pets.
And so some people were staying behind, cutting holes in their roof to go up to the second floor and putting all their pets in the attic. And so when you would do initial search, you would think that the house was clear until you started looking into the attic space for people when they knew that, “Hey, I think they’re still in there.” You would get a report that someone’s still in there, which led us to the [0:19:00] housefire that we helped — my crew put out with the boat fire.
The whole neighborhood had people sitting in kayaks in their garage or sitting in the attic space that they had cut the sheetrock out to stay with their family and pets. And so the water was three and four feet high into their living space, but they didn’t want to leave. Because they hadn’t — they didn’t want to lose their pets or they didn’t want to lose, you know, family members that weren’t able to ambulate until they were able to get a boat. So it represented a different problem to rescuing these people. They weren’t trapped in a sense, but they couldn’t go anywhere without the right resources. And so the rescues and the boat fire, that’s — you know, they’re still running their electricity, not thinking — and so [0:20:00] to shut it off at the main breakers, but they just exited the house so fast.
And I’m not talking about the people who were still trapped, but the neighbors house, you know, their air conditioning systems are still running. And they’re catching on fire. Or, you know, things you’re not thinking about similar to the natural gas that gets — you know, the pilot’s lights are burned out from the water. And the natural gas is still there, so they’re not turning off their utilities. So a lot of these problems are fires that are happening. You know, there may be a neighbor that’s there, and you have no control over what’s going on. And so —
DH: So there was a question. If you all are going through a house or like the house that had the fire, do you all, first thing, go and try to turn off the main breaker [0:21:00] and turn off the gas? Is that one of the first things you do?
NL: Correct, especially when we went to the Memorial area. Houses would get a strong-smelling odor. And utility control is very important, not only in and around the house, but just making sure like streetlamps that get knocked over and live wires. If you step, you know, in the wrong place trying to get out of the boat to help someone, it could represent a significant hazard for you. I know several — a couple people were injured and one story of a teenager that died stepping on one of the streetlamps — electricity. So you’re getting electrocutions and flooding, and you’re not understanding how. And so that’s always something we are mindful for when approaching different houses or staying in the middle of streets when you’re getting out of the boat to help. So it’s not something you [0:22:00] would normally consider as a number-one priority, but it is in a flood. Because it represents a different hazard for rescue. Utility control is always important in a fire, but I think we sometimes think about it — don’t think about it when there’s flooding.
DH: When you were talking about the water coming up so fast, did you all, as members of the fire department, have any sort of warning that the water was going to be released from the reservoirs?
NL: We were following the news as well — it was hard to — we would get reports from Westside Command that this may happen and to be ready. And they would start to do a lot of the evacuations ahead of time, so that’s when we coordinated a lot of the boats that would be out helping people. And we ran a — helped run a convoy with some of the neighbor [0:23:00] volunteers that put together boat convoys. And they would end up having, say, a police officer, a SWAT team member, or a dive team, and EMS that were on scene to help take care of all the people they would pull off from a hotel. And we end up using a convoy to get a lot of those reservoir members back to a safer spot near the freeway and then coordinate a METRO bus to have them triage if there was medical emergencies there — and transported to the hospital. And a lot of times, an ambulance could get a certain way on the I-10 and the Beltway to where we could get people there at least.
DH: I’m curious a little bit also about how when you all are sent to a certain area — Chief Branch is sending you to the Beltway or whatever. How do you know or do you know or is there [0:24:00] any division between whether it’s just an evacuation versus somebody who does need a paramedic? So like would they hold the paramedics back if it seemed like this was just an evacuation? Or how does that work?
NL: You don’t know until you get there. A lot of the times, you’ll arrive on one scene, and it’s different. And the dispatch location is hardly ever from where you actually go because of the flooding. They just dispatch you to a safe place that you can get a vehicle. A lot of times, they had a police officer or another HFD team that’s there waiting on additional resources that were able to guide you back. But then, oddly enough, it’s the community that really helped us guide us back into the proper locations. And [0:25:00] honestly, we wouldn’t be able to do it without them. I think they helped more than we know just whether it was — I think I rode 20 to 30 private little boats back, but I had a 15-year-old. I took a picture with a group of them. They wanted to, and they were 15- and 16-year-old boys. And I said, “If you can get us back there and you know where they’re at, help us.” And they did. And it was great.
So you had all kinds of the community coming out and helping and directing you to where people needed it the most. And the good thing about seeing the community is they usually know their neighbors. And so they know who needs the most help a lot of the times. And they gave us the most resources, the most information, directing us to them, a lot of the dispatch information. So I would always look for [0:26:00] a neighbor or somebody that lived close by. And usually, there was someone standing out, pointing and helping direct us there. So usually, a lot of the times, the information is correct on day-to-day operations to where the community is there. And you get a lot of information, but when you do a hurricane or a big event like this, they’re invaluable. And as much as I can include them, I would as safe as possible. But without them, I wouldn’t have been — we wouldn’t have been able to make the rescues we did or help.
DH: How many rescues do you think you did?
NL: We stopped counting, because it was — we had to use dump trucks to offload so many people. They wouldn’t fit on the boats. Or a lot of times — sometimes you have multiple boats — hundred and hundreds. There’s no way to keep count. It was so many [0:27:00] people. You know, millions of people that live in that area, and you’re rescuing 20 at a time and going out hundreds of times. You know, I don’t even know how many it was. I can’t — I can’t tell you.
DH: So you were using city dump trucks, because they’re high-water vehicles?
NL: High-water vehicles, and now, we have a new one at Station 5 — High-water Five, they call it. But at the time, we didn’t have enough of those, so we were using anything and everything. When we made the rescue at the — with the boat fire, where we put it out. We actually had a civilian that came and said, “Hey, I have a military truck with a snorkel on it. And it’s a five-ton high-water vehicle. Can you use [0:28:00] it?” And I said, “Let’s go.” And we jumped on it, and so at the time, we didn’t have any dump trucks available for that. They were all out on other rescue missions. So any high-water rescue vehicle that came in, we would use it.
DH: That’s great.
DH: And how about the busses? I’m curious about the busses, because they’re not — the busses are tall, but they’re not really high-water vehicles in a sense, are they?
NL: No, we’d have to use high-water vehicles to get to the bus. And we would use it as an MCI kind of depot station. And they were great though about coordinating with us on the radio and trying to — we were using cell phones and city cell phones to give their number. And we would set up the drop-off stations ourselves as best as possible within — but you’re right. They had to stay more in a parking lot [0:29:00] or something that was safe — a little bit ways off. So that’s where the high-water vehicles came in.
DH: So you were handing people off?
DH: And how about the dive teams? What was there purpose? I mean, I know there was a lot of water, but were they looking for potential drowning victims?
NL: I can’t go into too much of what it was they were assigned to do, because we weren’t there. But they assisted us a lot with maneuvering through. When we got a report of someone trapped, they were able to off — get off on the boat and make sure they were secure, depending on how high the water was — and make it into the houses to check or do a primary search. So a lot of the times, if the water’s up over the first floor, we don’t know how deep or where they’re at. And this is where their boats and maneuvering and expertise could get to some of the deeper locations, especially [0:30:00] when they were helping move over high bodies of water to get the helicopter rescues and the baskets. They were able to be in the water, making sure nobody offloaded or to help them into the boats at the time.
Because you had patients that were swimming to the boats that were having respiratory — you know, they didn’t have their medications. Their medications were under water. And so a lot of those problems that they would normally have, they are actually having an exasperation of medical problems while they dive team’s trying to help them get into boats until they can get back to medical treatment. So they were used for everything. Going back into Memorial had 10, 12 foot of flooding. So a lot of times, they couldn’t — they were having to swim to the location. That’s where they were able to used most effectively — is helping those patients get into the boats where the boats [0:31:00] couldn’t get to them. But they may have been on a rooftop or something that they could get to them.
DH: So when you say Memorial had 10 to 12 feet, where are you talking about?
NL: So near the bayou, where the bayou exits and then especially around some of the places on the Addicks Reservoir and going back to Highway 6 — but especially around the bayou and Memorial area.
DH: On the west side?
NL: Uh-huh, west side. Like the — when you go Beltway South from I-10, a lot of that was completely underwater. And that was 15, 20 foot going back around the roads and streetways. So that extended all the way back into the bayou areas that you couldn’t get to without a boat. And that’s why they were doing a lot of the helicopter rescues with the boat convoys back there, because they couldn’t get high-water vehicles that far deep [0:32:00].
DH: So off of Memorial Drive near the Beltway?
NL: Back there, uh-huh.
DH: So like I know where Kimberly is.
DH: And a little bit — what do you call it? Town and Country?
DH: Yeah. So that area?
NL: All that area going back into Highway 6. You had apartments that were — the whole first floor were flooded out. And so they were all moved to the second-floor balconies. And that’s where we were trying to get through to the most. And that’s a lot where we found some of the drownings and different — people that needed EMS help to get out and up to where they could meet up with other family members to help them.
DH: I know you mentioned about the people with the pets. I don’t know about necessarily a [0:33:00] percentage. But did you feel like there were a lot of people that stayed behind that should have gone ahead and gotten out? And then did you have to go back and get them at a later time?
NL: We did.
DH: Or did they wait for the water to go down? Or what happened?
NL: A lot of the people wanted to protect their pets and home. And they stayed around thinking it was similar to the Memorial, the Tax flood. And so they thought it would — might have — flood, but they were in a hundred-year floodplain. And so they were — when we talked to them, they weren’t expecting it to be so bad so fast. And so they thought if they had back-up generators and they were able to weather the storm and protect their pets, then they were going to give it a go. And a lot of times, I don’t necessarily blame them when they’re — haven’t been through [0:34:00] a flood this bad. But I think, if they would have known how bad it would have been, then they would have got out a lot earlier.
But they were wanting — I mean, their pets are their family. And so they were doing everything to protect their family, thinking it wouldn’t have gotten as bad as it did even though they had some storm models that predicted a little bit. But I just think that, from experience — lack of experience of seeing it and being through some other floods that weren’t as bad, it trapped them and overwhelmed them. And that’s why they were stuck. But I don’t know what you do with — if I was in their shoes and multiple pets and no way to really take care of them for long term except at the house and having the food and supplies [0:35:00] — but they did. You know, they got out, and they were able to — we were able to help them. And some stayed throughout the whole event and ended up needing resources later — even when given a second chance to get out. But they end up — we extended rescues for a week afterwards —
DH: Wow, I didn’t realize that.
NL: – into that area and still having to use boats following the second tour. Even though the flood was technically over, we were continuing to make rescues with smaller amount of resources, but — everybody had gone home. And that’s — the fire department was just as busy, EMS-wise, because now, you have a back-up of calls of — people have been waiting to call, thinking that their problem wasn’t as important as some of the other people that they’re seeing on TV or hearing about. And their medical problems end up being exasperated, because they waited so long to get help. And these are [0:36:00] weeks — a week after the actual when the water started to go down, but they’re still stuck.
DH: Was the hospital over there still fully functional the whole time?
NL: At that time, we were able to use a lot of Memorial City, but we wouldn’t try to overwhelm them as much as possible. Because they had a lot of walk-ins and just people that were flooding to that area to receive help. But they were still able to use medical station set-up outside in the Westside Command. So they ran little mini-clinics. And they brought in — similar to like an AMBUS, but they were able to stay there and get help as much as they could.
DH: You told the one story about the people in the wheelchairs. Are there other rescue [0:37:00] stories that stand out to you?
NL: The rescues that — I think all of them leave a little bit of an impression on you, but I just have such a heart for the elderly, partly because during Hurricane Katrina, my mother-in-law, you know, she was on hospice. And they end up — they didn’t have enough nursing staff to take care of those amount of patients. And so, in between — my family really relied on me a lot with my paramedic training to — in between work and coming home, to help take care of her at the house, because [0:38:00] we — I was the nurse there. And so seeing my family go through that backstory of having to deal with a generator that’s just dedicated to trying to help keep one of your family members comfortable in a difficult time in the end of their life and them sacrificing around that — and knowing the — just the — it’s not a burden. It’s just a — you’re not able to give more resources to help — and just wanting to do more, but there’s no way to do it. And if you could, you would.
So that was a difficult time for me, but I was glad to have the paramedic skills that were there to be able to provide hospice-type care, even though I’m not a hospice nurse or doctor, but [0:39:00] when there couldn’t — so that has always translated with me with families that are in situations like that that don’t have the resources to take care of the elderly. And so every one I make, I just have a big heart for, and I try to go the extra mile. Because I was in the same shoes, and I know what it’s like to be there. So those always weigh a little bit heavier on me. And I saw a lot of those that were out there. And it’s difficult, because they’re doing everything they can to not only save themselves. And you see these families, but they’re trying to help move what was normally a bed-bound patient into six-foot of water, five-foot of water and try to get them onto a rescue boat to get them onto a [0:40:00] dump truck. You know, they need the help of the fire department and the community.
The other thing I have a heart for is both my boys have cystic fibrosis. And so every day, they do multiple treatments, multiple nebulizers. And so every time I run across — and I came across a lot. A lot of the moms were very good about having back-up supplies, back-up — but just the pediatric medical emergencies that come along, I’m so sensitive just to providing that care for my own boys with my wife and I. And she does a great job, but when I see that, I just try to go the extra mile to get them to where they need to be and why — and understand that the seriousness of their situation isn’t in the now. It’s what’s going to come when they can’t [0:41:00] — when they run out of those primary medicines. And they’re not able to go to Walgreens, or they’re not having their medications dropped off — or the oxygen-dependent children that are on ventilators that need to be out as soon as possible. That was also a concern.
I tried to prioritize those in the rescues and making sure that a lot of the children that had the special needs, you know, just got taken care of. And so I would look for those, and we would try to help find those and just — even if they could get out on their own, make sure that they had the right care to get where they need to be faster so that they wouldn’t run into some of the same problems later on.
DH: I can imagine that that’s really difficult. I have a grandson with Down syndrome. He doesn’t have a lot of [0:42:00] medical issues. He used to have a lot of respiratory issues, but he’s kind of outgrown that, I guess, in a way. And so I can understand how that can be with special-needs kids. And they don’t understand. You’re trying to be logical or reasonable about what they need to do or being patient or — and you know, they’re not receptive sometimes, depending on what —
DH: – depending on what the special-need situation might be. Anyway…
NL: No, I completely understand it. And it is difficult for EMS and fire and police that you have children or family that have special needs like my own. That weighs a big burden on you, making sure they’re being taken care of. As much as you’re wanting to get to the community, you have a heightened sense of awareness of trying to be proactive [0:43:00] so that you don’t run into those problems. But when you’re there taking care of them, a lot of the special-needs kids, you just have to really make them feel safe. And they have a lot of sensory difficulties. And it makes rescues really — there’s already the anxiety level. And there’s already the urgency. And you just see it in the families that are there — and the parents, because you’re trying to be empathetic, knowing, but you also have an urgency to get out. And so you’re trying to be as careful as possible with the special-needs population and make them feel the most comfortable, but that does remind me of several of the kids that we rescued.
One had extreme autism and did not want to be in the back of a dump truck. And [0:44:00] we ended up maneuvering a different way to get them into — helping one of those dive team members in a boat. And he liked the boat. And so he went all the way to safety, and we end pulling it all the way to the end of the water just so he could get out into a safe place. But he wouldn’t move into the high-water rescue vehicles. But the guys really went the extra mile and just tried to keep him calm and stable, so we could help get him out of the water. But it didn’t seem like a big deal, and I wouldn’t say it’s a life or death rescue. But to the family, it just makes all the difference in a high-stress environment for them. And so those are little things you can do in the midst of trying to make a bad situation better, I guess.
DH: So that knowledge about special-needs kids and sensory issues, which I [0:45:00] can say we had some of those as well, is that something you know from having children with a special need? Or is that part of the training that you all get when you’re becoming EMTs and paramedics?
NL: I would say it’s experienced training, because every day, you go to different calls. And a lot of the times, we go to calls where families are faced with trying to provide medical care, but they’re not able to help some of the kids get there. Or they’re having a difficult situation, so you do get some of the training when you go through the hospital rounds. And the medical directors definitely help with paramedic school and doing those rotations and having special-needs courses and updates and medical CEs that you get. But the real hands-on training [0:46:00] is when you’re going to multiple calls during the day and you start understanding what it — what it really means and what it takes to just really help someone even though — you know they need the help, but to get them medical help, you have to first kind of create the safe environment, create the safe space. And a lot of times, it’s easier to do in the hospital setting, because you can control a lot of the environment. But out in the field, you know, it’s a lot different, because you’re having to move them a lot more and move them from a safe space at their home. And that training just comes with years of experience. And I don’t — I don’t know if you could have taught me all the different tips and tricks in the textbook of what you do to interact with them. But deep down inside, it comes with [0:47:00] just knowing that you’re there to help. And you want to help.
And then the — I haven’t met one firefighter that doesn’t have a passionate heart for kids and special needs when it comes to it. And you know, we can joke about different rescues. Like, “Oh, we should have — he’s only two-foot of water. He should have just got out of his car,” or something — you know, when it’s adults. But the special needs, I haven’t met one in my whole career that has just not cared about — tried to make the right thing when it comes to that. I think we turn that extra switch when it comes on. And it really shows with all the partners I’ve ever worked with. And you go the extra mile to try to help.
DH: I’m curious. The fire department or police department or any of the responder services that Houston had, did they have like lists [0:48:00] or names of special-needs people, individuals, children, populations that are in their areas — so that when there’s an emergency they know — you know, “Hey, that nursing home over on wherever is going to need some help. We know we’re going to have to go there?”
NL: Well, just the immediate territory for ours, we do teams or we go around and we know kind of what areas need help the most. So your primary territory you kind of know which apartment complexes — I think when you start getting stretched outside your boundaries, it’s difficult for us to have a list. And so that’s hard for us. I don’t know if we’ve developed something [0:49:00] that kind of has a unified list. I could be wrong. They could have it, but the translation when you get out in the field and you have over-stretched communications and you have — I mean, I was working with Atascocita and people from different states. And they’re not going to have that information readily available, because they’re not tapped into our system. So maybe we could do a better job of that. I don’t think we have that set up too much — or at least, not to my knowledge. But it would — it does seem like it would help.
DH: Well, I was thinking about a child like the boy with autism or the people in the first-floor of that apartment thing. Like if there was some sort of a way to keep a database, but maybe Houston is so large that’s not even practical.
NL: The nursing homes do a good job of [0:50:00] being proactive, I think, because they have a large nursing staff that helps. So typically, the nursing homes that require 24-hour care aren’t as large a problem — I would say a problem. But they tend to handle a lot of the resources and move the patients out quickly and efficiently prior to the storm. So those are okay, and it’s not usually something we have to find. But the assisted living areas that maybe — or somebody has a private — someone that comes in, those we don’t know about. A lot of times those end up being our most difficult rescues, especially for people that have — are wheelchair bound or use the motorized wheelchairs. The motorized wheelchairs are not coming up from five to six foot of water.
And so that transition of getting them [0:51:00] to safety becomes a really difficult problem, because now, there’s no way to get them into a chair-type system to transfer. And so the transfer’s made a lot more difficult when somebody that’s — we ran into a lot of paraplegics or that it’s — what is usually an easy transfer to a stretcher from their wheelchair becomes difficult in three foot of water or two foot of water into a boat — trying to get them out the door, because their wheelchair is completely inoperable at that time.
DH: And you probably can’t even roll a stretcher in there like that.
NL: Oh, no.
DH: You’re carrying them on a board stretcher kind of a thing?
NL: Well, yeah, a board stretcher [0:52:00], or we’re just moving the boats in to the front door and then carrying them on as easy as possible. Because it’s happened — you know, there’s so many people. You’re not able to send them with a board. You know, you just transfer them off the board. And so now, you’re trying to get them in a boat with no board, because you’re only having one or two that you’re able to use to transfer to. So these patients are — you know, someone’s having to maintain a lot of their stability when you move them into the back of a city high-water vehicle. Because they’re not set up to handle that. I don’t know anything that would really, but it’s, you know, things like that that you don’t think of normally.
NL: It becomes a little bit of how best to use the resources to get them to [0:53:00] where they need to be but safely.
DH: So how long were you at the station in west Houston versus coming back to your station where you normally work?
NL: So I was at the west Houston location for three years. And now, I’ve been at 82 for the last year — two years, sorry. Two years at 49, and then now a year here at 82.
DH: Okay, so were you still assigned to 49 during Harvey?
NL: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
DH: You hadn’t come down to 82 yet?
NL: Not yet.
DH: Okay, I didn’t realize that, so I had done like a little — not a lot, but I just kind of looked up on 82. And I saw that you all have a boat there.
NL: We do.
DH: So I’m just curious to know. Is that because of the flooding on Brays Bayou?
NL: Yes, that floods quite often. And they also put [0:54:00] one —
NL: I know. That’s just quandrantly located, so they try to space them out differently throughout the city to help in — and for ease of dispatch. It also has to do with the size of the station. Usually, they have a truck or a booster that’s able to tow the boats to be where they need to be launched. And so the smaller stations are — it’s more difficult to have them stationed there. So 82 is a large station with multiple bays. And they’re able to keep those resources protected under a bay to where they can be maintained properly. So that has something to do with it — quadrant, location in the city, what hazards they face, and then also the size of the station.
DH: Was there significant flooding in that area during Harvey? I know there was in Meyerland [0:55:00].
DH: But I wasn’t sure how far that came down — like if it came all the way down to Fondren.
NL: I wasn’t on that side of town, but from what they were telling me, you know, 68 was under water and had to — which isn’t that far away. And so it’s the same district. And the whole first level was under water. A lot of the firefighters’ vehicles that were in the parking lot ended up being flooded if they weren’t moved out in a timely manner, but a few of them got flooded there. And it went all the way back into the Meyerland area. And so they were constantly running boat rescues and different rescues in that territory, because they faced a lot of the same flooding. But as you know, that area floods so fast anyways.
DH: I was reading something on the weekend to prepare for a class I’m teaching in the fall. It was talking about Meyerland and how Meyerland didn’t flood [0:56:00] in the 50s and the 60s, which I think is a hundred percent true, because I lived in Westbury in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s. And it didn’t flood then the way it floods now. You certainly didn’t see — you know, you might see the bayou come out of its banks and sort of maybe creep in somebody’s doors right there along the bayou once in a while but not like we’ve seen the last three years. And I know Harvey was different in terms of the amount of rain that we had, but the Tax Day and the Memorial Day floods almost seem like they’re becoming a norm.
NL: They are. I think every time we get close to hurricane season we — lately, it seems the fire department gets — starts — we’ll start going back over our guidelines and start going back over every [0:57:00] season coming up just to get refreshed, because we’re just anticipating another one when I didn’t feel that urgency every time a hurricane season — before when I first came to the fire department. So I know it is changing. And we almost expect it now in a weird sense.
NL: That’s something — okay, when’s the next one? And everyone we — every time we turn on the news, we’ll start looking for one during hurricane season. Okay, where’s that one going? How close is it?
DH: I live in Kingwood, and they now have sort of new policies out there to kind of hopefully minimize the flooding by lowering Lake Houston. I don’t know if they’re lowering Lake Conroe, but they’re lowering Lake Houston so that — we have two to four inches of rain [0:58:00]. Then the lake fills up again, and it doesn’t overflow its banks. In the west Houston area, do you know if they’re doing anything similar with Barker and Addicks Reservoirs? There’s not anything like that that I know of that impacts Brays Bayou. I think it’s just on its own.
NL: I don’t — not that I can recall. You know, not that I’ve known —
DH: Not that you’ve heard?
NL: – or heard while we were doing day-to-day operations. But I wish I could say, but.
DH: They may not be doing anything. When you working there out of Memorial City and that area, how did that coordinate or did it [0:59:00] coordinate at all with the staging team that was at Tully Stadium?
NL: I never interacted with that staging team during when I was there. There was so many different staging kind of set-ups that once it crossed over a different bayou, we kind of let different — or a different flood zone, we couldn’t get resources over that way. So we kind of stayed — we were — end up being cut off or worked within a certain zone because of the natural hazards that existed. And so we — as crazy as it sounds, I never actually hooked up with them being pretty close, you know.
DH: Right, not that far apart.
NL: Yeah, which is funny now that you say that. But it — you kind of got geographically isolated to making rescues [1:00:00] in a certain way just by the way the flood took you. So that’s — yeah.
DH: Well, that’s alright. That’s good. That’s good that we have people in different places so that nobody is isolated. That’s a good thing.
So what kinds of precautions do you all take for your personal safety, especially from disease? We talked a little but about utilities. What about other things so that you don’t get flesh-eating bacteria or breathe something dangerous?
NL: I think that’s — you know, we do — we definitely — the fire department takes care of all of our vaccines, inoculations throughout the year and making sure we’re up to date on those. But when we — the fire gear that you have does protect against [1:01:00] carcinogens and boots. But when it comes to flooding, it really doesn’t protect you. I know Academy that was there at I-10 for some — as much as they had in supply were helping hand out the waders for the guys that were there.
DH: Oh, wow.
NL: And a lot of the dive teams had their own waders, but it was definitely on our minds when we started making sure just the — we didn’t have any open wounds. But we were in the water, I guess, risking a lot of being exposed to that to help when it — when it represented a life risk that we could — we could go for. We’re not issued waders or high-water pants. That’s there. We have rain gear. You know, and you — they would decontaminate a lot [1:02:00] of our equipment that got exposed later on. But in the middle of the rescue, I would say we were exposed like everyone else to what was going on. And you know, we had our personal PFDs, or personal flotation device, that you’re supposed to use more, but those aren’t — those aren’t shielding you from exposure to bacteria. And you know, we — some of the firefighters were sick. Some of our crew got sick later on with just a cold and, you know, flu and exposure to what everybody else was in. We did try to stay as much as we could in the boats or on the high-water. But when somebody needed it, I mean, we were jumping in the water to help.
DH: So we need to send Mayor Sylvester [1:03:00] Turner a letter and say, “You need to get the fire department some waders.”
NL: Yeah, that would help, especially in the floods.
DH: We’re buying all this equipment. Here’s another equipment that you would need.
DH: That would be good.
NL: Yeah, that would help. And we appreciate it. And you know, some of the guys had their own that they brought, but they end up having to throw it away, you know, to — in the end, because it was —
DH: Can’t clean it up.
DH: So I’m gathering that you personally — your home did not flood.
DH: So how is it for your wife? In your line of work, when there’s an emergency, you’re not going to be home most likely.
DH: How is that for family members?
NL: She [1:04:00] puts on a really good show for me even though sometimes I know she’s worried. But she’s a strong woman. And I think she’s developed as much skills as I have with my job with her job of taking care of the house. And so I think we — I go overboard on trying to prepare to make sure she’s with — safe — or family there, but it is difficult. And I can’t say it doesn’t weigh on her and the kids, especially the boys — you know, knowing that you’re out there. And so it’s a different stress that’s always in the back of your mind, especially when you know you’re getting updated information. And you know that it’s — could be your area or it’s there [1:05:00]. And it’s kind of a benefit, I guess, of having the information first or getting it from the sources. You’re able to tell the family, “Hey, you know, you may want to evacuate.”
But the family has helped a lot, so we’ve had family close by. And we’ve always lived close to our family. And so her mom and dad usually do everything they can to kind of help stay around and help. But it is difficult, and I don’t know how she does it. I try my best to give her all the preparation and help that I can before I go, but I don’t know what I’d do if it got really bad where she was and I wasn’t able to help.
And I guess that brotherhood of knowing that I’m out there doing everything I can to help. And hopefully [1:06:00], the firefighters and police officers that are there in our territory, if it came down to it, they’re putting out the effort that I am. So I know they’d be in safe hands. And so you’re kind of — you put a lot of trust — as much as the community puts trust in me, I put my trust in that same community in those same groups of firefighters and police officers that everybody else does in me. So I think having that as accountability in the back of my mind of saying, “My family’s in the same boat, and if it was me and my family, what would I do for you?” So that makes being at work for long extended periods time just a different stress level, knowing you have boys that have special needs or special treatments and just your wife there to take care of it. If she were to need help, what would — what are they going to do [1:07:00]? So I don’t know how to answer that fully, but hopefully, we do everything beforehand to get out to where I don’t put her in that situation unnecessarily.
DH: It sounds like you have a good arrangement — that you’re a team.
NL: Yeah, you’re a team. You have to be a team. And everybody — the spouses do such a good job. And I think that’s why sometimes we end up being more family than not — is you kind of understand where they’re coming from. And you’re able to call somebody — another firefighter in a different shift that’s off-duty or may not be — have been recalled to work and just say, “Hey, would you run by, you know, and see?” And they’ve done it in the past, especially during Katrina, you know, and Harvey.
DH: [1:08:00] I know there’s this — I forget what the term is, extraterritorial jurisdiction, that Houston has beyond its city limits. Is that something that kind of comes into play during Harvey situations? Like you mentioned Atascocita people being out there. And then you live in Friendswood, which if I remember right is Galveston County or —
NL: Brazoria County.
DH: Brazoria County?
DH: Okay. So does that come into play in Houston’s extending its boundaries when other people are coming into the city and helping?
NL: Yes, so we offer mutual aid quite often. And almost every day — a lot of people don’t know. We do a lot of mutual aid for all the surrounding areas that are in Houston, whether it be Missouri City, Sugarland community [1:09:00]. And then you get Kingwood — well, a little bit further out, but you know, we get into Humble and different areas. So a little bit further out, we offer a lot of mutual aid. And we do help a lot, but it also extends to where we’ll send resources to help with different activities or different problems that go out. You’ll get some help from the fire department going that way, or they’ll offer different services, whether it be the AMBUS — because the AMBUS can be dispatched to any region kind of in the south Texas — they’re not just with SETRAC. They kind of run a wider operation. You can be dispatched outside of Houston.
DH: Okay. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you want to add about your Harvey experience?
NL: [1:10:00] I have to think. Let me see. Y’all will edit the [unclear, 1:10:07].
DH: Yeah, we can edit, uh-huh.
NL: Well, I didn’t know if I had so much think time.
DH: Oh, no, no, you have all the think time you want.
NL: I guess, did you want me just to add some stories?
DH: If you want to, yeah, that’d be great.
NL: I’m trying to think of the just unusual ones that were there. I don’t know. I don’t know, because we would have stories where we would end up going to a house. And say we got a call for a cardiac arrest. Well, it end up being just some — you know, people have died [1:11:00] or different things. And you’re able to locate them and tag them, but you’re not — you know, we would call from HPD and kind of hand it over to them. But what’s sad is when you’re going door to door and you’re seeing a family floating inside of a house. And you know that you couldn’t have done anything, but then the story — you’re wanting to know what happened, but you’re just handing it over to the proper authorities to kind of take care of that scene and moving on to the next one. And when — normally, we would be — have more resources to help. And so prioritizing sometimes who gets what or trying to send — I wouldn’t say — people who are able to walk just kind of keep moving, keep going. And so when you respond to a small fire, but you’re not there to put it out. You’re just there to see who [1:12:00] you can rescue. And switching priorities is difficult sometimes, because you’ve been trained so much that when you go there and you see people struggling to get out of vehicles and to help — and you’re just moving from one rescue to the next — that you know, you’re pulling a boat on top of people who are stranded — on the top of their vehicle. And then you’re getting them. And then you’re getting reports from someone a couple streets over that’s in the same boat that they’re in. And you just run right over to help them — that they complications when you go into EMS — and you know, we had people that were having heart attacks in the middle of these rescues.
You know, you’re [1:13:00] bringing limited equipment sometimes to help, because — and so a lot of the times, you would have everything at your disposal right at the front door, you know. And to watch the look on their face, knowing they’re having an extreme medical emergency, but you’ve got to wait to get them onto a boat, into a high-water rescue vehicle, where they do have resources and knowing they’re struggling during that time and there’s not really much you can do until you get them to a safe place that has resources — that you’re not able to provide the help when you — even though you are helping them — is sometimes stressful and — in that you know what you can do, but it’s not the same. So like the people being rescued from the nursing home, you know, [1:14:00], you’re just wanting to make sure they get somewhere safe even though they’re having a medical emergency sometimes. And you’re doing the best you can. And that does make it difficult.
And sometimes having to ask people to leave or make the decision on their own if they want to leave their pets or — you know, and to see them struggle with that decision of what they want to do even though you’re trying to tell them, “Hey, the water’s rising. It’s going to get worse. We need to get you out.” And they’re not wanting to leave those pets — and seeing some of their faces of making that decision knowing that they were leaving those animals behind or leaving their whole house behind. It starts to weigh on you a little bit, because you’re not wanting to push them. Because it’s so difficult a decision, but you’re also trying to save their life. So it’s — I feel [1:15:00] where they’re at, but you’re also trying to get them out.
And so they’re making that decision sometimes to let their animals die to save themselves or to save a family member. And so that weighs a lot on everyone that’s there when you’re pulling them out. And so it’s a difficult decision. Sometimes they can’t make it right away, but you’re trying to give them all the time they need. But you’re also trying to rescue them in a quick manner, because there’s so many people to rescue. So you’re being forcefully nice to say, “Hey, we can come back for you, but we need to move now if you want to — if you want to be out.”
And so I think the rescues were endless. I mean, boat rescues, EMS rescues, nursing home rescues, house fires [1:16:00], electrical emergencies, electrocutions, it just — and then you add the trauma — you know, people that have jumped off or tried to jump off of a certain area to safety or from the second floor — or they’re trying to get to another area, and they’re battling with a broken tib, fib, or a broken ankle — you know, trying to swim to safety, because they had to get out — and lacerations of them trying to go out a certain way or get through the windows when the water rises. You’re treating those emergencies as much as you are trying to help them. And so they — it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few stories, because it’s just nonstop.
NL: It’s endless. And so I could give you a scenario for every possible one when it comes to it that you wouldn’t think about, but [1:17:00] that’s why it’s hard for me to just pinpoint it down to one thing.
DH: That’s okay. That’s alright. Well, thank you.
NL: Oh, no problem.
DH: This has been really informative, and I appreciate you taking time to visit with us. And it’s been wonderful.
NL: Well, I appreciate you letting us tell our story and speak out a little bit about what goes on and how we kind of put our family life with the fire department side and how those work together to not only give you a different insight into what people think and how they feel — but also kind of helps you deliver better patient care overall in the experiences of going through multiple floods to help.
DH: Yeah, okay. Well, thank you.
NL: Alright, thank you.
DH: Turn these [1:18:00] off. [1:18:02]