the Fire Line
Volunteer firefighters are a mainstay,
but demand pushes more hiring.
Almost 35,000 Texans are members of the state’s volunteer fire departments and combined volunteer and paid departments.
The tinder-dry conditions gripping Texas in 2011 have put firefighting and fire prevention efforts at the fore of public and political attention. At the end of June, the federal government acceded to Texas’ request for disaster status, in response to more than 3 million acres burned during the previous seven months.
Texas emergency response, including firefighting, is achieved through a complex patchwork of professional and volunteer resources comprising tens of thousands of men and women. And during the headline-grabbing wildfires that indiscriminately burn thousands of acres for days or weeks, it’s often volunteers who risk their lives to protect their neighbors’ property and homes.
Since 2002, the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program has funded more than 1,400 fire trucks, 50,000 sets of protective gear and 38,000 places in training courses.
At Possum Kingdom in Palo Pinto County, the “PK Complex” fire charred more than 126,000 acres over a three-week period before firefighters contained the blaze on April 28, according to Texas Forest Service (TFS) reports. More than 160 homes and two churches burned.
Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department (MWVFD) personnel were among the hundreds of firefighters deployed at PK.
“We pretty well had a truck out there every day for 12 to 14 hours or longer,” says Palo Pinto County Fire Marshal Steve Perdue, a retired schoolteacher who has served as MWVFD Chief for 15 of the 35 years he has been a firefighter. MWVFD is among 11 volunteer and combined volunteer and professional departments protecting Palo Pinto County.
“Everybody in this county was pulled down to just the bare basics of covering their home territory in terms of equipment and people,” Perdue says. “When I put three brush trucks on the PK fire, I had only one covering my area.”
The emergency also limited the volunteers’ ability to provide support for the city of Mineral Wells’ paid fire and emergency medical services (EMS). Chief Robin Allen says that the two departments share facilities, but have separate service responsibilities, budgets, equipment, leadership structure and training requirements.
“When a structure fire comes in, we are very lucky to have the volunteers to call on,” she says. “And part of our paid staff is considered volunteer when they are off-duty [and respond with the volunteers to calls].”
Being tax-supported, the city’s fire department is better situated to buy specialist equipment. Allen said her department responded to Chief Perdue’s request to deploy the city’s command center, a support trailer that could refill air tanks for firefighters tackling the many structure fires at the massive PK blaze.
A Tale of Two Departments
Mineral Wells and its surrounding area are served by two fire departments, one paid and one volunteer, which operate from shared premises but have separate command structures, funding and service areas. Each provides backup for the other organization.
|Mineral Wells FD||Mineral Wells VFD|
|Type||Combination Fire/EMS||Volunteer Fire|
|Chief||Paid city employee||Retired teacher who also serves as paid Palo Pinto County fire marshal|
|Primary Response Area||City of Mineral Wells; approx. 40 square miles. Countywide ambulance service.||150 square miles (including city of Mineral Wells)|
|Firefighting Personnel||14 paid firefighters/EMT or paramedics + chief||36 volunteers|
|Budget||$1,844,123 (fiscal 2011) from city budget||$56,000 from Emergency Service District property taxes + $6,000 approx. from fundraisers/donations|
Sources: Mineral Wells Fire Department and Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department
Funding for Firefighting
The cost of fire prevention in Texas would be much higher without the efforts of almost 35,000 Texans who are members of the state’s 1,497 fully volunteer fire departments (VFDs) and 292 combined volunteer and paid departments. Those combination departments have about 6,200 paid firefighters, while the state’s 139 fully paid departments have more than 19,500 firefighters primarily focused on protecting the state’s municipalities, according to Texas Forest Service records.
While some state and federal grant funding is available for fire departments, most fire protection is funded at a local level through taxation or donations.
Funding for fire protection varies widely across the state, although the proliferation of VFDs serving rural communities, particularly in sparsely populated regions, means that almost all areas across the state have at least basic firefighting equipment — and firefighters willing to use it.
And that’s despite the fact Texas has no legal requirement for cities or counties to provide fire protection, according to Russell Gallahan, a regional economic development specialist for the Comptroller’s office. State law permits cities and counties to provide fire protection and either levy a tax to pay for it or contract with an emergency services district (ESD), and/or fire department, he adds.
Since 2007, moreover, the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS) has provided a voluntary assistance system that allows fire departments to call for help from other areas of Texas when they need it; says Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Linda Moon.
“In the first six months of 2011, 354 fire trucks and 918 firefighters — constituting 142 fire departments — have participated in the mutual aid response effort,” she says.
The Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System mobilized
to fight fires during the Spring 2011 wildfire season.
In exchange for their commitment to help as needed, fire departments received the following from TIFMAS in its first year:
grants for structural
firefighter air packs
Source: Texas Forest Service
Texas has more than 60,000 active firefighters, more than half of them volunteers.
|Type||Number of Departments||Paid Members||Active Volunteers|
Source: Texas Forest Service
The tipping point
As the population grows, so does the demand for fast, reliable emergency service response. Incorporated communities can dedicate part of their general fund spending to fire protection. In unincorporated, often rural areas, where water lines and hydrants are less common and calls are less frequent, financing emergency services takes a different route. Typically, such areas rely on volunteers, fundraisers and donations unless their voters approve the creation of an ESD to levy either a property tax or sales tax to fund fire protection or ambulance services.
“A number of volunteer departments [are] switching to a combination of volunteer and paid firefighters because they have secured ESD funding.”
State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas
“Certainly, there are a pretty good number of volunteer departments switching to a combination of volunteer and paid firefighters because they have secured ESD funding — particularly in areas on the outskirts of metropolitan areas,” says Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas (SFFMA), which has more than 1,200 fire and EMS member departments and 21,000 members.
Barron cites Travis County as a prime example, which in recent years has moved from having just one paid fire department — the city of Austin’s — to only a few of the county’s 14 departments still using volunteers. Manchaca VFD, where Barron is fire chief, has paid firefighters on duty weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but relies on volunteers to respond to night and weekend calls.
“Manchaca [doesn’t] have the funding to afford full-time paid staff,” he says. “We got the ESD funding to replace equipment with stuff that actually worked. Now we are focusing on rebuilding the fire stations.”
Training brings benefits
Paid firefighters must complete training to become certified by the state, says Mark Roughton, the Texas Commission for Fire Protection’s (TCFP’s) public information officer. A certified firefighter must complete 468 classroom hours of fire and emergency training. From 2001 to 2010, TCFP’s certified firefighters list rose substantially, from 18,378 to 29,138. This represents about half of all paid and volunteer firefighters in Texas, and includes thousands of certified volunteers.
“A pretty good number of people go through a paid fire academy and realize that, in this part of the state, there are precious few fire departments with paid openings,” Perdue says, adding that many departments have dual fire and EMS responsibilities, and want recruits with emergency medical or paramedic training as well as firefighting skills.
“When a fire department says they won’t talk to you until have paramedic certification, these newly trained firefighters are looking for place to go,” he says.
That’s good news for Mineral Wells VFD and other departments that use volunteers. They can offer certified firefighters a place to gain valuable experience, a win-win situation for both parties.
“The recruit is getting valuable experience and a leg up on the competition and the fire department is getting a trained person,” Perdue says.
“There is no mandatory training for volunteers,” says Barron. “Firefighter training, if you go to Austin or another city, takes six months. Our association SFFMA has a program for firefighters to attend classes in their spare time and be certified in different skills.
“It allows them not to quit work while becoming a career firefighter,” he adds. “At the end of July each year, 2,500 firefighters come to College Station and go to fire school for the week.”
The type of fire protection available in a community can have a direct effect on property insurance costs.
“[A paid fire department] is a tremendous investment for a community,” says Ed Salazar of the State Fire Marshal’s office, the agency that investigates arson. “Although you could have a VFD that does the training and enforces code, and could theoretically rate as good as a paid department, it isn’t normal.”
Distance from a firehouse and the availability of working fire hydrants are the major factors used in calculating ISO Public Protection Classification (PPC) ratings. Lower PPC ratings translate to lower insurance premiums.
“A community that only has a volunteer fire department is more likely to have a higher PPC rating,” Salazar says.
September 6, 2011, Bear Creek Fire, Cass County.
Source: Texas Forest Service
Although fire protection is each community’s responsibility, the Legislature has long recognized the contribution departments can make outside their own service areas, and the need to help firefighters obtain better equipment.
“One of the main duties and roles the TFS plays is to build the capacity of others,” Moon says. “With fire, that [involves] talking with a lot of communities and building the capacity of first responders, volunteers and fire departments.”
Since 2002, the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program has funded more than 1,400 fire trucks, more than 50,000 sets of protective gear and more than 38,000 places in training courses.
Mineral Wells VFD obtained a brush truck this way, very helpful for a department of its size, Perdue says.
“[Our] other three trucks are a 1976 and a 1984 held together with Band-Aids and baling wire, and a tender we bought seven years ago on a ‘sweetheart deal,’” he says. “[Neighboring] Parker County was buying 23 [trucks]; we tagged on with them and got what should have been a $210,000 vehicle for $185,000. We’re paying $15,500 every year on a bank loan for it. It will be paid in nine more years.”
“Local fire departments are the first responders,” Moon says. “When their capacity is exceeded because fires are too big or are threatening homes and communities, the state steps in to help. And once the state’s resources are exceeded, we pull in federal help.”
Beginning this year, the TIFMAS program has been allocating trucks to communities around the state in exchange for their departments’ assistance in responding to large fires.
Joe Florentino is the Texas Forest Service’s TIFMAS coordinator, as well as fire chief in the North Texas town of Little Elm.
“We’re setting up a cadre of departments that can send personnel, typically for a seven-day response,” he says. TIFMAS delivered 16 brush trucks in the first six months of 2011, each costing about $100,000.
According to Florentino, the first eight trucks delivered in February were used extensively during the spring fire season; some departments were surprised by how quickly they were called upon to hold up their end of the arrangement. FN
Visit the Texas Forest Service website for ongoing updates on Texas wildfires.