Suburban Fire Departments Struggle with Funding, Volunteer Staffing Issues

I missed this Houston Chronicle story when it came out.  But the points it makes have been issues since I was a volunteer/part-time paid staff for a combination department (full disclosure: it is one of the named departments in this story).  Back then, the Emergency Services Districts (“ESD”) were just coming into vogue as a funding mechanism.  Considering the issues that even the large departments are having (see e.g. the City of Houston announced a 5% decrease in public safety funding today), it should come as no surprise smaller departmetns are feeling the pinch.  The text of the story is after the jump.

Marc

Fire districts sound the alarm

Funding shortages, a drop in volunteerism put a squeeze on suburban departments

By RENÉE C. LEE
HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Jan. 17, 2010, 9:12AM

Two years ago, the South Montgomery County Fire Department bought just over an acre of land for a fourth fire station to service new subdivisions that were popping up in the eastern part of its territory. Today, the property remains vacant because the department doesn’t have $4 million to build and equip the station.

Emergency calls have increased up to 6 percent annually in recent years and soared 11 percent in 2009 for the Northwest Volunteer Fire Department in northwest Harris County. More volunteer firefighters are needed to handle the calls, but with the recession and volunteerism on the decline, recruiting is getting tougher for many suburban volunteer fire departments that serve unincorporated areas.

“Who can afford to volunteer?” said Don Grogg, a commissioner for Harris County Emergency Service District No. 9, which supports the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department. Cy-Fair, with 350 volunteers and 220 paid firefighters, has managed to do better than other departments.

Keeping enough personnel is just part of the challenge of trying to stay ahead of the development that’s occurred over the past five years. Fire stations need improvements and additional fire apparatus and trucks are needed, all of which can cost millions of dollars. A new pumper truck can run as much $500,000 and a new ladder truck up to $1 million.

And the price tag to fully outfit a single firefighter is about $10,000. Some fire departments have changed the way they operate to maintain service levels, while some have increased property tax rates or added sales taxes to boost revenues.

“People have an expectation that when they call 911, someone will be at their door in three minutes,” said South Montgomery Fire Chief Robert Hudson. “Every emergency response provider attempts to do that but the level of service is based on funding for that level of service.”

Montgomery County ESD No. 8, which operates Hudson’s fire department, is considering asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax in May to help pay for its new station and to hire additional firefighters. It has applied for a federal grant that will pay the salaries of three new firefighters for two to three years. Once the grant dollars run out, the department will have to find a way to carry the cost. The salary for a full-time firefighter ranges from $30,000 to $43,000 in ESDs, about half the pay of a municipal firefighter, and part-time firefighters make between $10 and $21 an hour.

Many suburban fire departments are supported by emergency service districts, a taxing entity. The districts, however, are limited in how much property tax they can collect. They’re capped at 10 cents per $100 per assessed value.

“It’s literally a small amount of the overall property tax system,” said Fred Windisch, fire chief for the Ponderosa Fire Department in north Harris County. “We’re less than community colleges, MUDs and school districts.”

Legislation failed

Departments also can get approval from voters to collect up to a 2-cent sales tax. But many districts don’t have that flexibility because the 2 cents that can be tacked onto the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax is already assessed by other jurisdictions . That’s the case for most of Harris County’s volunteer departments.

In November 2007, several districts in the Houston area went to voters with a sales tax measure. Most failed, including Montgomery County ESD 8′s proposition.

During the 2009 legislative session, emergency service districts and fire officials tried to get the tax rate cap increased for a 5-cent capital tax. It came within a whisker of approval but eventually failed in the House. The tax would have given fire departments extra dollars to add fire stations and improve existing ones, they said.

Fire departments that are entirely run by volunteers, and not under an emergency service district, rely on donations and funding from the county. The Fresno Volunteer Fire Department in Fort Bend County, for example, receives about $80,000 a year from the county and the rest of its $100,000 budget is gathered through fundraisers and donations, said Fire Chief Paul Hamilton.

With new subdivisions moving into areas that were once rural, the department sometimes is challenged with water issues. Many of the areas don’t have fire hydrants, so water has to be shuttled in, Hamilton said.

Unable to save home

But the one-station department struggles most with staffing. Emergency calls are increasing each year and sometimes firefighters can’t make the call because they’re working on their paid jobs, he said.

Last weekend, a Fresno homeowner lost his home because volunteer firefighters never responded to the early morning fire. The Missouri City Fire Department was eventually dispatched, but firefighters arrived too late to save the home.

“We’re talking about some changes to try to prevent this from happening, but until we have an ESD so we can have paid firefighters, we’re at the mercy of volunteers,” said Hamilton, who was out of the district when the fire broke out.

Persuading residents to approve establishing a taxing district would be difficult because they already feel they’re overtaxed, he said.

Most suburban fire departments, including those in Harris County, are combined departments. They have full-time and part-time paid firefighters who generally cover calls during the weekdays and volunteer firefighters who cover the nights and weekends. Those in the paid ranks are usually career firefighters who work for municipal departments and work at the volunteer departments on their days off. Some departments are moving part-time paid firefighters to nights because of service demands. The South Montgomery Fire Department went to all paid in 2009.

Last year, the Northwest Volunteer Fire Department changed its residency policy to attract more volunteers. Now that they can live outside the district, 10 more volunteers have joined the ranks. The department also now requires volunteers to respond from the fire station rather than from home to ensure timely response, said Fire Chief Wesley Cole.

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