The Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department is expanding its presence in the Cy-Fair area with the opening of three new stations this spring and summer.

Harris County Emergency Services District No. 9, which manages CFVFD’s budget and contracts with the fire department to provide fire services, plans to open the $5 million, 19,000-square-foot Station No. 13 near the Bridgeland community in Cypress in early June.

In addition, two new stations were also built to replace existing stations 2 and 9. A grand opening was held for the new Station 2 on Wortham Center Drive on April 28, and Station 9 will open on Cherry Park Drive this summer. Construction costs on the three new stations, along with renovation costs at Station 7 in Fairfield, were budgeted at $25 million, but final costs have come in at about $3 million under budget, ESD 9 officials said.

The new stations feature more space for gear, equipment and living space and will increase training capability, said Tim Gibson, managing director for ESD 9. CFVFD Fire Chief Amy Ramon said the expansion is needed to cover the ongoing growth in Cy-Fair.

“We want to decrease response times and increase coverage,” Ramon said.

Meanwhile, May 5 elections have brought several new faces to the ESD No. 9 board of commissioners. Jessica Rivas and Tommy Balez were elected as new members along with Scott DeBoer, who was re-elected.

Rivas and Balez ran their campaigns as a part of an organized effort called ESD 9 Moving Forward, which called for improving transparency with the public and planning for future expansion. Both new commissioners expressed interest in updating the district’s strategic plan to account for growth, but said they first want to make sure input is  gathered from all stakeholders, including firefighters and members of the Cy-Fair community.

“I just want to do an assessment [and] get a little more detail,” Rivas said. “I don’t want to go in there and make a bunch of decisions. I want to listen and get a lay of the land.”

Going west

The new Station 13 is now the westernmost station within the CFVFD’s service area, giving firefighters closer access to the part of the district experiencing the fastest growth, according to ESD 9 officials.

Projections from the demographics firm Population and Survey Analysts show 23,000 homes under construction across western Cy-Fair from 2017 to 2026, including Bridgeland, Towne Lake and Canyon Lakes West.

Station 13 features five apparatus bays, living quarters, a training and conference room, work rooms, a decontamination room, EMS storage space and a physical wellness area.

With Station 13 completed, future stations are being planned for the western Cy-Fair area, said Gibson, who was hired by ESD 9 in November. The ESD is working to buy land for future stations as far in advance as possible, he said.

“The ESD recognizes that [CFVFD] covers one of the most diverse and growing communities,” Gibson said. “When you think about the direction we’re heading for—over 600,000 [more] residents in the next 20 years—if we were an incorporated city, we’d be somewhere in the top 30 in the nation.”

The ESD board is going through several steps to ensure space is reserved for future fire stations in areas that will allow the department to reduce response times, Gibson said.

According to Ramon, the average response time for CFVFD is 8 minutes. Response times for fire departments are expected to be between four to 10 minutes, according to the National Fire Protection Association, but can vary from department to department.

Gibson said since he began his role as managing director, ESD 9 has been in touch with Kerry R. Gilbert Associates, a land planning consultant firm based in Texas, to talk about buying land before it becomes too expensive or is purchased by another entity.

“They’re the planners that plot out how land is going to be used and allocated by developers,” he said. “The developers reach out to them and say, ‘This is what we want to build.’ They plan out what needs to be public land, what needs to be a residential, commercial, retail—all that stuff.”

Meanwhile, stations 2 and 9 were both relocated as a part of a strategic effort to improve reach, Gibson said. Station 2 was moved southwest, away from the corner of the district’s service area, and Station 9 was moved south to better reach growing areas in the southern part of the district.

In addition, Station 7 was renovated in May by adding and expanding bays to provide more space and resources for staff, including a medic unit, Gibson said.

After Harvey hit the Greater Houston area in August, the CFVFD committed to gaining more equipment to traverse water during flooding events, Ramon said.

“We have a proposal that we’re working on to take to our board and the ESD board for additional high-water vehicles and additional evacuation and rescue boats,” Ramon said. “Station 13 is getting an engine, a ladder truck and medic unit.”

The types of equipment purchased at each station is based on an area’s specific needs, ESD No. 9 Commissioner David Langenberg said. For instance, if an area has a high volume of car accidents, more rescue trucks will be given to stations in the area, he said.

Looking to the future

To staff new stations, CFVFD is working on recruitment efforts. Although some firefighters are transferring to Station 13, more volunteers are needed to ensure consistent hours across the board, Ramon said.

In 2017, CFVFD had 283 volunteer firefighters, which was down from 309 volunteers in 2016 and 360 volunteers in 2015, she said.

The drop in volunteers is a challenge being faced by VFDs across the U.S., according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Although numbers have increased—up to 814,815 in 2018 from an all-time low of 756,400 in 2011—staffing is still lower than desired, as stated in an NVFC fact sheet.

“Recruiting is always a challenge,” Ramon said. “It’s a large time commitment and physical challenge.  Once the person joins the department, they have about six months of training between fire and first aid that they must attend.”

As for future budgeting, Langenberg said the ESD is planning through 2025, and Gibson said discussions have  spanned the next 30 years.

The two newly elected commissioners and Gibson agreed the ESD and CFVFD should have a concrete plan in place to manage the continued expansion into western Cy-Fair.

ESD No. 9 Commissioner Bob Janusaitis said the future of the district is looking clearer, and a better picture of what happens next will likely emerge within the next few months.

With Station 13 completed and ready to serve the community, the next step will involve purchasing land for Station 14, Janusaitis said. The exact location of the next station is still being determined, but the current budget and tax rate should cover the costs, he said.

“I think new insight into what we’re doing or new analysis would be great,” he said. “I think in June or July it’ll probably [be]come clearer, so I’d say stay tuned.”

New commissioners

Rivas and Balez, whose terms begin June 1, ran on platforms of making the ESD more transparent with the public and more connected with CFVFD.

Rivas, who has also served on the CFVFD board of directors, said at an April 26 candidate forum that she would like to see more collaboration between the two entities.

“It also needs to be a relationship where both parties are listening to each other,” she said.

To highlight the lack of transparency, Rivas pointed out that minutes for ESD 9 board meetings have not been posted online since Feb. 16, and several recent meetings had been changed to a different time without public notice.

Janusaitis, who was re-elected in 2016, agreed there is room for improvement when it comes to transparency. He said he is open to providing more information to the public, including livestreaming meetings and providing documents more efficiently online.

“I really would like to get to the point where when a citizen wants info, they don’t have to request it; they don’t have to go to a meeting,” he said.

Ramon said she hopes the relationship between CFVFD and ESD No. 9 improves with the new commissioners and they move forward with a  definite, collaborative plan.

“I can explain what a hose is to anyone,” she said. “I need somebody who understands business. They can handle that part and let me run the fire department. That’s what I’m looking for.”