First responder need increases in western Travis County

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Note: an earlier posting of this article stated Braden Frame represents Lake Travis Fire Rescue. Frame only represents the Lake Travis Fire Fighters Association.

On Feb. 21 at around 4 p.m., the Lake Travis area got hit with several emergency calls within minutes of each other.

The first call was from a house in Lakeway. One of the rooms had contents on fire. Minutes later, Verde’s Mexican Parrilla on Hamilton Pool Road reported a fire on the roof of the building. A few minutes after that an emergency medical call came in from the Rough Hollow neighborhood along Lake Travis.

According to Braden Frame, president of the Lake Travis Fire Fighters Association, the string of calls that afternoon, right around rush hour, is a good example of how quickly first responder resources can be stretched thin.

“The first fire in Lakeway wiped us out. The second fire required fire trucks in Pedernales, Ce-Bar, Oak Hill and Austin to respond. And then the medical call came in,” Frame said.

Even though quick successions of emergency calls can strain first responders’ resources, Frame said he feels firefighters in the Lake Travis area provide a high level of service.

Frame said he and LTFR are fortunate. They operate five stations with a sixth coming to Hamilton Pool Road.

Frame said once the new station opens, LTFR firefighters will be able to reach 68.6 percent of the area they cover within 6 minutes. Frame said that is a high level of service. But it could always be better.

“That still means that 31.4 percent of our roads we can’t get to within six minutes,” he said. “For those citizens, there still is a continuing need for more stations.”

When it comes to needed personnel, Pedernales Fire Department Chief Troy Wenzel said he is operating below the national standard.

The three fire stations within Emergency Services District No. 8 that he oversees as chief of PFD run nine firefighters for all three stations.

“If you look at the numbers, I don’t meet the current expectations and standards for staffing levels,” Wenzel said. “If I’m running three stations with nine guys [per shift], I’m not even putting four guys on each truck.”

The National Fire Protection Association has set the minimum requirement for fire departments operating in remote areas and a travel distance of less than 8 miles at four firefighters per truck. That is according to NFPA 1710, one of several codes and standards set by that organization.

Wenzel said he would like to comply with the guideline, but right now he is making do.

“There are some caveats to that if it’s a rescue situation, and that’s how I can get away with running three [personnel per apparatus], but it’s not the best thing, and it doesn’t meet the expectations that everybody else in the country is trying to get to,” he said.

In December, Wenzel and Professional Firefighters Association President Kyle Swarts delivered a presentation to Lakeway City Council requesting permission to allow Travis County to hold a May election regarding the creation of a new emergency services district, ESD No. 16.

Lakeway officials gave permission Jan. 22.

The addition of a new ESD would add $0.10 per $100 of valuation in property taxes for those living within district boundaries, and Wenzel said he feels like any other taxpayer—he does not want to pay any more than he needs to.

“I’m no different than anyone else, but I am very much on the side that this is needed,” he said. “I’ve been in emergency services in Travis County for 37 years. This area is going to keep growing rapidly.”

Calls for Service

Generally, first responder entities go by the number of calls per year they receive to determine whether more personnel are needed. There are other determining factors, but Bee Cave Police Chief Gary Miller said calls for service is a major indicator.

From 2014-18, Miller said BCPD has seen a 59 percent increase in calls for service. Though that may seem like a sharp rise in a five-year period, he said his department remains adequately staffed to handle the increase, and the main issue BCPD has is keeping existing officer positions filled.

Another factor making Bee Cave unique is its high volume of visitors for retail shopping. With two major commercial shopping outlets, the Shops at the Galleria and the Hill Country Galleria, Miller said the daily retail traffic in Bee Cave substantially surpasses the resident population, which is about 7,500-8,000. That means Bee Cave’s service population is much higher than its population and therefore more complicated when determining first responder need.

In the area covered by PFD, however, Wenzel said calls for service more directly represent the need for more first responders.

The area within the boundary for the newly proposed ESD No. 16 is not as populated as cities such as Bee Cave or central Lakeway, but Wenzel said calls for service for PFD have gone up 54 percent in the last five years, and 17 percent of that has taken place in the last two years.

The growth is coming, and first responder entities like his need to be ready, Wenzel said, adding with that influx of residents and businesses, the district’s needs are rapidly outpacing the amount of money they are bringing in. A new ESD’s property tax income would help greatly with that, especially given all of the new property coming to the area.

There are several reasons an area such as western Travis County does not have fire departments within its municipalities. Frame said one of those reasons is has to do with the type of population density prevalent in the area combined with the value of a shared community response.

Absorbing a new first responder entity such as a fire department is also a massive undertaking that involves the hiring of administrative and training staff, as well as the purchasing and upkeep of equipment including fire engines and trucks, he said.

“If everybody started fracturing off, then you’d have to hire four separate fire chiefs and four separate administrators and four separate HR departments,” Frame said. “You increase unnecessary costs that way.”

Frame said another benefit of having ESDs over fire departments budgeted within municipalities is the fact that ESDs are barred by state law from collecting property taxes over $0.10 per $100 of valuation.

Less populated to more populated

Jody Tatum has lived in Travis Landing, a small subdivision in the Hudson Bend area of Lake Travis, for about 20 years.

In roughly the last seven years, Tatum has twice had to use first responder services including Lake Travis Fire Rescue. Tatum said the most recent incident for which she needed an ambulance was speedy, and she has no complaints, but she also notices big and rapid changes to her area.

“In the 20 years I’ve lived here until the last year to two years, I don’t think I saw one home built,” she said. “And then here in the last year to two years, we’ve probably had 10 built. That can just tell you the amount of people coming in and construction in this area. If they haven’t added personnel or fire trucks, I’m sure that they probably need to.”

Wenzel said he needs to increase his numbers now, and an equally important priority for PFD is to decrease response times in his area.

“We know that due to the nature of our district we need to provide a higher level of care to our constituents,” Wenzel said. “Sometimes an ambulance is up to 20 minutes away. … So, [with a new ESD]we can advance those life-saving measures a whole lot faster, and that is what we’re trying to get to.”

For the 2018-19 fiscal year, PFD’s ad valorem revenues are $2.2 million, Wenzel said, adding that leaves about $1.3 million from sales tax revenue for everything else his district needs. The total budget he has for the 2018-19 fiscal year is $3.5 million. Of that, Wentzel said his administrative cost for human resources pay and benefits, which includes physicals, all insurance costs, and many other factors, totals out at almost $2.7 million.

The remaining $800,000 goes to pay for fuel and other costs on fire trucks and running the day-to-day operations of PFD, he said.

Wenzel said if the new ESD 16 is voted into existence in May, his hope is to hire six new firefighters, all of whom would be advanced medical-trained personnel. It would also allow him to make his third station, a squad called Brush Truck 803, into an actual engine company operating 24 hours a day rather than the 12-hour station that is operating now.

It will not happen right away, but eventually PFD could start putting four firefighters on each truck per NFPA specifications, Wenzel said.

The annexation issue

The neighborhood north of West Lake Hills known as Lost Creek was unincorporated Travis County land in 2015 when it was annexed by the city of Austin.

Before the neighborhood was annexed, resident Barbara Szalay said the perception there was that Travis County sheriff’s deputies frequently patrolled the area. The community even had an office for them at their municipal utility district building, she said.

“I saw sheriff’s vehicles so much, sometimes I’d worry that we had a crime problem, but it was just that they gave us constant and pervasive coverage, and it was wonderful,” she said.

Since being annexed, however, Szalay said the perception in the neighborhood is there is much less police coverage. She said she is most commonly told the Austin Police Department is stretched too thin and said they do not devote the time to Lost Creek the sheriff’s department did.

Szalay said residents of Lost Creek have been working with APD and other parties and have been provided with several options to boost police patrol in the neighborhood, including hiring officers or constables out of pocket.

Precinct 3 Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said Lost Creek is a good example of a large community not wanting to be annexed, and then not being happy with perceived changes in certain first responder services following annexation.

“I know there are people out there that are not happy with the services that the city is giving them,” Daugherty said. “That’s just what I hear. And that is just the nature of how municipal government has traditionally worked.”

Justifying an overlay district

Beyond Lost Creek, Daugherty listed other examples of how annexation can hurt communities.

“If you go to Volente, they don’t have a lot of resources because their district isn’t very large, and they don’t have a large ad valorem tax base,” Daugherty said. “And what really hurts them is they are bumping up next to Cedar Park, and Cedar Park has annexed large tracts, and that takes ad valorem revenue streams away from Volente.”

Daugherty said another area hurting from a lack of resources is ESD No. 8, in roughly the same area Wenzel wants to create ESD No. 16, thereby bringing in more tax revenue and resources for more first responders.

Daugherty said other areas with overlay districts similar to what Wenzel is campaigning for through ESD 16 are faring much better because the taxes generate more revenue for first responders and equipment. One area he listed is Lago Vista/Jonestown on the north side of Lake Travis.

“If you are in Pedernales ESD 8, No. 1, you don’t have the resources right now,” Daugherty said. “You have a fairly large geographical area that makes it much more difficult to get some of those places. So that is the reason they are attempting to do an overlay.”

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Brian Rash
Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018.
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