Fire departments adapt to serve growing area

WDL-2016-02-01-1Incident calls to emergency service providers in The Woodlands area doubled between 2010-15, resulting in plans to construct new fire stations to maintain response times.

“A lot of fire departments in this county are building fire stations just to be mobile,” said Kevin Hosler, fire chief for Needham Fire Rescue Company, which serves an area east of The Woodlands across I-45. “We’ve never had that problem in this county before. Our population [growth] every year is staggering.”

Planning new stations

Officials from both the South Montgomery County Fire Department and Needham Fire Rescue Company are planning multiple new fire stations.

“The only thing that will address response times is making sure we have stations in the right locations,” said Clint Cooke, assistant fire chief with the South Montgomery County Fire Department, which serves the Rayford Road corridor. “What really drives the location of stations is response time to the area of what’s being built and available land.”

The department will break ground this spring on a new station in the master-planned community of Harmony to assist with response times to the eastern side of the district. The new station is expected to open by spring 2017.

Fire departments adapt to serve growing area“We know it’s very likely we’ll have at least three more stations, and then beyond that is the unknown,” Fire Chief Robert Hudson said. “If we continue to grow and pack people into the county, at some point we may need to put intervening stations in between existing ones [to maintain] response times.”

Needham Fire Rescue Company is constructing a new station on Sleepy Hollow Road near Trails End, west of the Chateau Woods area, which is expected to open in July.

“There have been talks of also building two additional new stations on the west end and east end [of the district] to improve and maintain the response time that we have,” Hosler said. “There are four major subdivisions that have been started within the last six to eight years [in the district]. We have Fosters Ridge and Harper’s Preserve East being built now, and you can go through there monthly and see new families moving in. The growth has just been staggering.” 

As The Woodlands moves closer to residential build-out, the fire department does not foresee a need to construct additional stations, Fire Chief Alan Benson said. There are eight existing stations and a training center in the department’s service area.

“Because of our [station] locations and our response times, we have enough coverage throughout The Woodlands to meet a five-minute [response time] standard,” Benson said. “However, the increase in frequency of emergency incidents has gone up a lot in the last four years. Because of that, we may consider adding another [engine or ladder truck] to Station 5 on the western side of The Woodlands. That will be driven by the run data we collect and how we’re keeping up with response times.”

WDL-2016-02-01-3Department challenges

The majority of emergency services districts are funded through ad valorem, or property, taxes, but there is a cap set in Texas at 10 cents per $100 of valuation. Several ESDs in Montgomery County also operate off sales tax revenue to supplement property tax funds, but local departments have additional needs as the area continues to grow.

“Like every other organization that is tax-funded, there’s always more need than there is money,” Hosler said. “In previous years, there has been talk of increasing the cap for ESDs, which was set back in the ‘90s. Back then, you could buy a fire truck for $200,000, and now they start at [$500,000]. Every year the costs increase and challenges to staff increases. Along with that budgets have to increase, too.”

One of the major hurdles is new development hitting before the funding to provide services starts flowing in, Cooke said.

“As new commercial businesses go in and new apartments go in, the need for services happens immediately, but the revenue source is usually 18 to 24 months behind,” he said. “We’ve learned we need to get in early, and we’re working with developers now so they’ll talk with us about getting a piece of property [for a station].”

The Woodlands Fire Department is funded annually through the township’s budget. One of the biggest challenges for the department has been getting ahead of the curve in regard to growth, Benson said.

“To be a good master-planned community, you have to have the forethought to anticipate growth—maybe not the rapid growth, but certainly the overall growth,” he said. “That has been no different for this fire department. The anticipation led us through the development of the stations we have and the staffing required.”

Over the past two decades, several of the county’s 11 ESDs have made the shift from all-volunteer departments to ones that are staffed by full-time employees.

“It’s been amazing to sit back and watch how the fire service and emergency service has changed in the county,” Hosler said. “I continue to see it be a challenge. It’s going to make the municipalities and ESDs in the county communicate and have a plan ready for what’s coming.”

WDL-2016-02-01-4Recruiting firefighters

Recruitment in the fire service industry is extremely competitive, and it can be hard to find qualified employees, Cooke said.

“This is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, and there are far more jobs available in fire service than there are qualified people to accept them,” he said.

The Lone Star College-Montgomery Fire Academy trains recruits for fire departments throughout the county, preparing students for service in urban, rural and suburban settings, Program Director David Griffin said.

“LSC-Montgomery averages 40-50 students per year,” he said. “They receive 750 hours of fire service training over nine months to prepare them to take the state test, which will certify their ability to work in the state of Texas.”

About one-third of the students who complete the program stay in Montgomery County, Griffin said, and several area fire departments work with the program to find qualified applicants.

The Woodlands Fire Department has a partnership with LSCS’s program and allows it to use the department training facility near I-45 and FM 1488. Earning a spot in the township’s fire department is highly competitive, Benson said.

“To be a firefighter with The Woodlands Township, you have to be commissioned as a firefighter in the state of Texas and have EMT basic certification,” he said. “That’s just to test. We usually have anywhere from 400 up to 600 applicants every time we test. I think a lot of people aspire to work for us.”

Hosler said while it is not hard to find qualified firefighters, it can be difficult to keep them in the industry.

“I’ve lost a couple to the oil industry in the past couple of years,” he said. “We lose them to other industries because they can make more money,” he said. “They have families, and they have to make a good wage.”

By Marie Leonard
Marie came to Community Impact Newspaper in June 2011 after starting her career at a daily newspaper in East Texas. She worked as a reporter and editor for the Cy-Fair edition for nearly 5 years covering Harris County, Cy-Fair ISD, and local development and transportation news. She then moved to The Woodlands edition and covered local politics and development news in the master-planned community before being promoted to managing editor for the South Houston editions in July 2017.