New development in Conroe, coupled with population growth from the city’s annual annexation initiatives, has increased the need for new fire stations to serve the city as well as additional firefighters to staff them. Meanwhile, Emergency Services District No. 2, which contracts services with Montgomery Fire Department, placed a measure on the May 7 ballot asking voters residing within its boundaries for the right to levy a 2 percent sales tax to aid its facility and staffing needs.
As development continues, Conroe Fire Chief Ken Kreger said he anticipates having to add new fire stations throughout the area to meet demand.
“It is a little overwhelming,” Kreger said. “I can tell you I have five stations that I can already see in my head that need to be built.”
Local fire departments continue to train an increasing number of firefighters to address the growing demand while the Conroe Fire Department is planning the construction of a fire training facility slated to open by September 2017. Conroe does not have a dedicated fire training facility and instead relies on training personnel during overtime by coordinating fire training throughout the region.
Conroe Fire Department
CFD Battalion Chief Greg Nesom said the department will need to hire 18 firefighters in January 2017 to accommodate the addition of a Fire Station No. 7 at the intersection of Longmire and League Line roads that will open in June 2017. Its firefighters will likely be trained in a similar fashion to firefighters from Station No. 6, which was acquired by CFD when the city annexed April Sound in January 2015.
“We did a two-week academy for those guys,” Nesom said. “We borrowed trailers, rented vans and we drove to Porter, drove to The Woodlands, drove to R&R Salvage [in Conroe]. It was just a scheduling and organizing nightmare. If we have a facility, that solves the issue.”
Training new staff at regional facilities is an ongoing strain for the department, public safety officials said.
“I have to be responsible for all of these people out there—not just the citizens but my firefighters as well,” Kreger said. “We have to make sure that our guys have hands-on skill training so we all feel comfortable knowing that if we get a call that they know what they are doing and have the right tools.”
The department conducts live fire training with the Porter Fire Department, hazardous material and structural collapse training with The Woodlands Fire Department and sometimes simulates high-rise training at the Conroe Police Department gun range.
“We make the most of what we have,” Nesom said. “There is added overtime expense because Porter is 45 minutes away. We can’t send an in-service pumper or guys [who] are on duty down there.”
The city of Conroe has budgeted $3.4 million for the new training facility that will allow firefighters to conduct live fire training at the Conroe Park North industrial park, Kreger said.
Montgomery Fire Department
Montgomery County ESD No. 2 is asking voters within its service area to approve a 2 percent sales tax to raise funds for a new fire station. Fire Chief Brian Edwards said the department purchased land for the station near the intersection of Keenan Cut Off Road and Forest Hill Drive to serve nearby residents as well as new Montgomery ISD elementary and middle schools.
Approval would mean sales taxes within the district would increase by two percent on top of the 6.25 percent already levied by the state. Because sales tax cannot exceed 8.25 percent, however, approval would prohibit the city of Montgomery from levying a sales tax in future areas of annexation, City Manager Jack Yates said. The ESD’s sales tax would not affect businesses within the Montgomery city limits—where the sales tax is already capped at 8.25 percent maximum.
Yates said he is proposing a possible interlocal agreement to City Council on April 12 that would split the ESD’s sales tax in half, instead giving the city 1 percent of revenue generated from future annexed areas. Yates said the proposal is similar to the agreement the city of Willis shares with ESD No. 1.
“We need that one percent for operation costs and with the agreement, the city would still be able to maintain their economic development initiatives,” Yates said.[polldaddy poll=9358564]
The agreement would allow the city to pay debt-service on utilities as well as expand city, police, road construction and park services, he said.
Edwards said the fire department also has a difficult time retaining experienced personnel because it cannot afford to compete with salaries offered by surrounding emergency service districts which—unlike MFD—receive sales tax funding.
“A lot of our firemen are leaving to work for other ESDs that pay more because they have a sales tax,” Edwards said. “We are constantly training new guys. Then a year or two down the road, they leave to go get more money. It is just a big snowball that keeps going over and over.”
Edwards said a new station would benefit nearby residents by reducing the price of homeowner fire insurance within a 5-mile radius of the facility.
“There are three or four subdivisions that are currently outside of the 5-mile range [of our existing] stations,” Edwards said. “A station down there would reduce homeowner fire insurance tremendously and obviously provide [residents] with better fire protection.”
Yates said ESD officials have been receptive to the possible agreement during preliminary conversations.
“A good department is good for the city, so we need to keep the department and the ESD strong,” Yates said.