It's been just over a year since three new commissioners—Naressa MacKinnon, Kevin Stertzel and Robert Paiva—were elected to serve on the Harris County Emergency Services District No. 9 board following a campaign focused on transparency and tax relief. Local officials said the past year has been marked by both challenges and successes.

“To provide a high level of service it takes all three: the board of commissioners, the command staff that sets policy. and the boots on the ground—the firefighters—and it's great that we can all come together,” said Chris Fillmore, president of the Cy-Fair Professional Firefighters Association.

Some of the major recent accomplishments of district leadership include hiring a consultant group to formulate short-term and long-term plans for the district; hiring dedicated resources to oversee finance and employee recruiting; and adding a mental health program for employees.

In addition, the board approved the implementation of a bilingual stipend, lowered the property tax rate, raised the elderly and disabled homestead exemptions, and purchased land for new fire stations, Board President MacKinnon said.

“In the last year, I’ve learned to navigate and understand the inner workings of the fire department and laws associated with the industry, ... to listen to the many different and interesting perspectives, and find fitting solutions as a team, and most importantly learned that our command staff and members are top-tier,” MacKinnon said in an email.

Hiring a consultant group

The board hired consulting firm Citygate Associates to continue the long-range plan the board had already initiated. They have been contracted to provide a fire master plan, community risk assessment, compliance audit and strategic plan.

The assessment will focus on positioning the district to meet existing and future service needs, providing guidance for the district’s future, and analyzing projected population growth to determine where new stations need to be located, Fire Chief Amy Ramon said in an email.

Firefighters on staff believe the Citygate assessment will show the need for more fire stations to continue to deliver a high quality of service to the district’s customers, Fillmore said.

New mental health program

Another change that was implemented by the district is a mental health program for dispatchers, firefighters and other emergency staff who deal with job-related stress and trauma.

“As a wife of a first responder and a former volunteer myself, I’m deeply invested in keeping our public servants safe and healthy, especially mentally. The idea of being able to play an important role in their wellness by advocating wellness initiatives piqued my interest,” MacKinnon said.

Fillmore said throughout emergency services departments there has been an increase in suicides among first responders as well as an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. The rate of PTSD among firefighters and paramedics is estimated to be up to 37% compared to the national rate of 6.8%.

The new program consists of a critical stress management team and a peer support team, allowing first responders 24/7 access to assistance, Fillmore said.

Staffing, funding challenges

MacKinnon said in the past year, the board identified a need for a finance director to streamline operations as well as a new marketing director to help raise community awareness about the department and to increase public safety.

Another achievement MacKinnon cited was the decision to hire a human resources director to help recruit more first responders as the department continues to grow.

Finding talented and dedicated resources has not been easy for the district, Fillmore said.

“Staffing is a big issue not only in our district but across the nation. COVID[-19] had a big impact on the ranks of firefighters and emergency medical personnel,” Fillmore said.

In addition to recruitment and retention, funding is always a top concern in emergency services, particularly in years when the state Legislature is in session, officials said.

“Every legislative session, there’s pushback against ad valorem tax and sales tax. Those are our main sources of income to run the department and plan for the future, ... and since Senate Bill 2 was put in place [in 2019], our tax rate decreases every year,” Ramon said.

While the Cy-Fair Fire Department provides fire, EMS and dispatch services for $0.06 per $100 valuation, Ramon noted other parts of the county pay taxes to two separate ESDs—up to $0.20 per $100 valuation.

“Our property tax rate is half of what other districts have, and we should be proud of that low rate and the high quality of service we are providing,” Fillmore said.

Working together to serve

MacKinnon said, overall, the past year’s work has been gratifying, and leadership has repeatedly proven themselves to execute their duties with the utmost professionalism. Changes implemented have been positive and collaborative, she said.

Ramon said collaboration and understanding all parties’ points of view has been the key to working together in the district to serve the community.

“We collectively found a way to work through our differences, and I am so proud of that. We’ve really cemented a culture with the command staff around operationalizing care. Every decision ... is run through a lens of ‘Who does this help? How does it impact real people?’ Whether this manifests in how leaders care about crew members or how crew members care about patients, care is on everyone’s mind,” Ramon said.
Meet the board:

Naressa MacKinnon: Elected in 2022

Kevin Stertzel: Elected in 2022

Robert Paiva: Elected in 2022

Bevin Gordon: Elected in 2020

David Langenberg: Elected in 2016