Officials with the Harris County Emergency Services District No. 9 announced at a May 28 meeting intentions to take control of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department and begin offering fire and emergency medical services directly by year’s end.
The move will unlock several advantages that will help the department, as a fully governmental entity, be more competitive in recruiting and maintaining fire fighters, which ESD Commissioner Tommy Balez said will be crucial for adapting to population growth. Once the merger is completed, the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department would cease to exist, and the ESD would begin operating under its new name—the Cy-Fair Fire Department.
Under their existing relationship, the ESD has a contract with the fire department that includes managing the department’s budget, hiring and setting the general course for growth. The ESD is essentially looking to end that contract, move all CFVFD employees and assets to the ESD, and begin offering services directly with no gap in coverage, Balez said. All of the department’s more than 500 employees and volunteers will receive jobs that are similar in position, compensation and benefits, including Fire Chief Amy Ramon, he said.
The transition will not come with noticeable changes for employees on a day-to-day basis, nor for residents served by the department, Balez said. However, it would come with changes to how the department is managed, he said.
“The organization as whole doesn’t change,” Balez said. “Who you report to may change, but at the end of the day, you’re going to get the same pay and hopefully better benefits and a lot of other advantages you wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Among the key reasons for the shift is to make the department more competitive when it comes to hiring full-time employees, Balez said. Under the proposed merger, the department would be able to take advantage of exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act that will allow for more favorable shift scheduling, and it will have the ability to offer more competitive benefits, including pension plans, Balez said. Details about the pension plans that will be offered are still to be determined, he said.
The move was announced as the district is in the middle of an aggressive growth plan and is staring down a projected population increase of nearly 150,000 people in the service area over the next 10 years. Average travel times for fire calls have increased in each of the past three years, Balez said.
Although the district has been building stations and adding fire engines, staff shortages leave many engines out of commission, Balez said.
“At any given time in the district with current staff, only five engines are ready to go,” he said. “That is what really is affecting the response times. The stations are in the right spots, but they don’t have people in them all the time.”
By July, the district projects to have 13 fire stations, six engines, and five volunteers and four paid staff working each day. By July 2023, the district hopes to have 15 stations, 15 engines, and five volunteers and 17 paid staff working each day, Balez said. The plan is not expected to require a tax rate increase, even under a conservative growth estimate of 3% per year, Balez said.
Harris County ESD No. 13 underwent a similar restructuring with the Cypress Creek Fire Department in late 2018. That agreement was also mutual, and officials at the time said it would improve efficiency and better reflect the combination model of paid and volunteer staff that the department was operating under.
Members of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department board of trustees expressed support for the move.
“We’re blessed to be sitting on really good times, and we have opportunities for improvement,” trustee Terry Wheeler said at the May 28 meeting. “I’m convinced that [the ESD is]doing this for what you believe to be the right reasons, that you’re really trying to make this better.”
Next steps for the district include hosting town halls to educate firefighters on the transition and forming an advisory committee to begin the process of transferring assets from the fire department to the ESD. The transition is expected to be finalized by Dec. 31.