According to the Montgomery County Emergency Services District No. 2, emergency calls within ESD 2, which includes the city of Montgomery, have increased 48 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, the city of Conroe Fire Department responded to 9,593 total calls in 2017, compared to 7,179 in 2013.
To handle the demand for emergency services, Conroe Fire Chief Ken Kreger said CFD built two new stations since he became fire chief in 2005, including Station No. 7, which opened at Longmire and League Line roads in March 2018 costing $5.5 million, alongside the city’s first-ever fire training facility, which cost $3.9 million to build.
Kreger said the department is also filling six new firefighter positions beginning in January, and the city plans to build four new fire stations in the next eight years to accommodate the growing number of emergency calls.
“Because of our growth in our area and some annexation of open land that’s going to be developed, we’re still going to need new fire stations built in the future,” Kreger said.
New fire stations cost an estimated $3.5 million-$5 million each including equipment, according to Kreger.
“This growth has challenged the city to be able to plan ahead and look for these things, [but] there’s a challenge for the city,” Kreger said. “It can’t build too early if it doesn’t have the infrastructure, money and tax base to be able to pay for all this capital investment as well as personnel and upkeep of a station.”
Outside Conroe city limits, ESD 2 has recently added two stations and now employs a total of 55 full-time firefighters in a transition from volunteers to nearly all paid staff. South of town, Needham Fire & Rescue is also planning a new station and a renovation along with staffing and equipment to fulfill growing emergency service needs.
Conroe’s fire needs
Kreger said the need for new fire stations does not look like it is slowing as the area consistently grows and the city plans for future land annexation.
The four tentative stations could be located in The Woodlands Hills, along Wally Wilkerson Way, at Grand Central Park and near Presswood Drive. Kreger said he is also watching the Maxedon property in northeast Conroe for upcoming developments—and more buildings that could potentially catch fire.
Conroe Chief Financial Officer Steve Williams said four new fire stations have already been added in the 14 years he has worked for the city—including Station No. 4, Station No. 5 and Station No. 6 due to annexations and The Woodlands Township changing service boundaries.
“As the community has grown, we’ve added more stations, and now we are adding additional firefighters to each apparatus [or truck],” Williams said. “Plus, we just opened Station No. 7, so that’s going to add 15 firefighters.”
The Conroe Fire Department received $16.5 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year budget approved Aug. 23., along with a $782,000 supplement for vehicle repairs, operations and staff related to the new fire station and training facility. At first, the fire department requested funding for three new battalion chiefs and three additional firefighters—and the proposal came with a property tax increase. Instead, the request was modified to include six new firefighters in early 2019 and three battalion chiefs to be added the following year with no property tax increase.
The extra staff will help the department increase staffing to four firefighters per fire truck. Kreger said this number comes from the National Fire Protection Agency requiring four firefighters on-site before two can go in for rescues.
“By putting four people on the truck, you’re able to go in there on the first engine crew [arriving],” Kreger said.
Currently, Kreger staffs three firefighters per truck, so the team must wait for a second truck to arrive on-scene before going in.
Kreger said if he hires three firefighters every other year, he will be able to staff all nine Conroe fire trucks with four people within eight years. He then plans to hire more battalion chiefs to oversee the new personnel.
“The fact that we’re looking at all of these fire stations’ personnel and needs, when you add that all up that’s scary,” Kreger said. “We’re going to have to build one [station] at a time … that all depends on infrastructure, development and how quickly it comes about to bring in the tax base. That’s one maybe every other year, and that’s pretty quick when you’re talking investments.”
Montgomery staffing challenges
Montgomery Fire Department Chief Brian Edwards said the department looks at staffing levels and studies the demographics and growth of the district.
ESD 2, which contracts with the department, serves 223 square miles in northwest Montgomery County, including the city of Montgomery.
“The manpower on the trucks are our biggest asset and biggest cost,” Edwards said. “With the increase in calls for service, we will need to add more manpower in the future.”
Adding two new stations over the past three years—one in Dobbin and one along Keenan Cut Off Road—and staffing them 24 hours a day has exhausted the district’s resources as far as adding further stations and equipment.
“Our belief is there is no need to build a station unless you are going to staff it,” Edwards said. “It does the citizens no good to have a station and expensive apparatus and no one to respond with it.”
To meet the region’s demands, ESD 2 works on outreach programs to encourage young adults to become firefighters. It has five volunteers in the Explorer Program, which allows high school students to participate and discover the firefighting career.
The district employs 55 full-time firefighters and emergency medical technicians, Edwards said.
“We used to rely on volunteers 15-20 years ago, but have evolved into a nearly fully-paid fire department now,” he said. “This ensures the people get a quick response when they have an incident and need the fire department.”
South county services
South Montgomery County is serviced in part by ESD 4, which contracts with Needham Fire & Rescue for fire services. ESD 4 serves the unincorporated area between The Woodlands Township and Conroe in two segments on the east and west sides of I-45.
Needham Fire & Rescue Chief Kevin Hosler said ESD 4 just filled four firefighting positions—three vacated positions and one new role—in a bout of hiring. Hosler said while he does have enough staff and equipment for now, it is a double-edged sword.
“Especially in Montgomery County, all our call volumes are increasing, and struggling to keep up with all of those seems to be the problem I have with growth,” Hosler said. “The pinch on it gets to be when the growth is growing faster than our budget, basically—but fortunately for us, the district has been seeing that and planning for that.”
Over the past seven years, the department grew from 12 full-time firefighters to 34 and added Station No. 62 along Sleepy Hollow Road east of The Woodlands, because the Sleepy Hollow and Chateau Woods neighborhoods there are isolated by a railroad track.
In the next two years, the district plans to build at least one more fire station along Conroe Magnolia Road because it also is isolated and has no back entrance, which increases call response times. The plan also includes hiring 12 more firefighters to staff the new station with three firefighters per shift, Hosler said.
Needham Fire & Rescue also plans to renovate the station along Highway 242 in the next three years because it was originally built in 1994 back when the station was run entirely by volunteers, Hosler said.
“Your best-laid plans are only as good until your next plan because our population and our demographics in the area will dictate how we move and where we go,” Hosler said.