Rural fire departments have mixed feelings

Rural fire departments have mixed feelings

16 December 2007

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USA — An Emergency Services District to fund volunteer fire departments in the county would have pros and cons for each department.

But there is a consensus among some of the volunteer fire department chiefs in Guadalupe County that fighters are in short supply and something will have to be done about that as rural parts of the county see increases in population.

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise polled several VFD chiefs after County Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Kinsey, citing a critical shortage of volunteer firefighters in the county, told county officials that discussions regarding an ESD should soon begin.

“The only area of Guadalupe County that has enough population to support a tax-supported ESD would be west of State Highway 123 and north of IH-10,” Tim Bogisch, chief of the McQueeney VFD, said regarding the topic of emergency services districts in Guadalupe County.

“There is not enough money in much of the unincorporated areas of the county to support an ESD,” Bogisch said.

Bogisch said that if a tax-based ESD were to fund two fire fighters to occupy the fire station in McQueeney full time, it would still be necessary to call on other departments in case of a significant fire call.

And the numbers of taxpayers in the McQueeney VFD service area would not support staffing the fire department with five or six firefighters.

“My concern is that based on current demographics, an ESD would not be able to raise anywhere near the money people would expect to make an improvement,” Bogisch said.

“It would be hard to convince people that if they want the level of service they are used to, they’ve got to be willing to pay for it. Even if you have a good volunteer fire department, it is not reasonable to expect an adequate fire response in under 10 minutes,” Bogisch said.

Tom Amen is the fire chief of the VFD in nearby Marion.

He said an attempt was made to establish a localized ESD in Marion a couple of years ago, but for some reason it failed.

“There are pros and cons to an ESD. It would be good overall because of the finances of it. I think that’s the way we’re going in the future, the big thing is how can we keep the volunteer fire departments in the green and serve the community? With more and more and more people moving into the area, that might be a route,” Amen said

Amen said that if an independent ESD were set up specific to Marion rather than county wide, it would be an advantage to the Marion VFD.

“If we were competing with other fire departments for money, it would not be to our advantage,” Amen said.

Bill Harborth is the chief of the Kingsbury VFD. He also works full-time in Seguin at Mini Grip/Zip Pak, an employer he describes as a “good, civic-minded organization” that allows him to fulfill his duty as chief of the department that covers the largest rural area in the county.

“The main concern we have in our area is that we’re strictly a rural volunteer fire department, for the most part rural farmland, cattle and hay,” Harborth said.

“I’m afraid that if we have an emergency services district that is specific to our particular area it wouldn’t generate enough income,” Harborth said.

His point is that a county wide ESD might be more concerned with protecting the more populated areas of the county rather than farmland.

Kingsbury might be smack in the midst of the rural part of the county (Kingsbury VFD serves a 135 square mile area, and it takes 20 minutes to answer calls from the fire station), but with winter coming on and with the potential for lots of dead grass in the pasture lands, the recipe is for disaster.

The last big grass fire in the Kingsbury area consumed 75 acres, and different fire departments sent a total of 14 fire trucks to the scene.

“There are too many variables that haven’t been answered, and there are a lot of questions in my mind,” Harborth said.

One problem for volunteer firefighters is that they not only would have to be available to fight fires, but it takes time for training, for filling out paperwork to satisfy numerous rules and regulations and to staff the annual fund raisers that many volunteer fire departments have to conduct to raise additional funds for their departments.

“A volunteer firefighter has to be a mechanic, a student, a trainer and a public relations liaison. It’s a huge job if you can get into it and do it. People should be thankful for these volunteers. Without them, we would be in a world of hurt,” Harborth said.

The county only funded nearly $360,000 during the most recent fiscal year for the various VFDs in the county.

That amounts to only one-third of the annual budget for the York Creek Volunteer Fire Department.

The remainder is raised through donations, an annual barbecue and an annual auction.

The York Creek VFD services 68 square miles, and its population includes Zorn, Redwood and Staples, with a station in each of those rural communities. The York Creek VFD has a core group of seven volunteer firefighters, with a total of 14 on the roster.

York Creek VFD Chief Karl Randow said he sees good points and bad points about ESDs.

“I am more against them than I am for them, unless I see that each volunteer fire department would have its own emergency services district,” Randow said.

“I think we would have a good enough tax base in our area, we’re getting more and more subdivisions out here,” he said.

Although he is leery about a county wide ESD that could be a disadvantage for the York Creek VFD, Randow said he sees it coming.

“Something is going to have to give. We are not getting enough volunteers. People don’t seem to want to volunteer anymore like they used to. I can see it’s going to happen one of these days,” Randow said.

Guadalupe County Precinct 4 Commissioner Judy Cope said the various fire departments are reporting a shortage of volunteer firefighters.

“The fire chiefs are aware there is a problem and a need, and I’ve asked them to look it over and come up with a solution to the problem since they are involved and are familiar with it,” Cope said.

She said a lot of people are moving into the county, but they still have jobs in Austin, San Antonio and other ares that require commuting, which makes it difficult for them to volunteer their time to the local fire department.

“We can’t rule out anything,” Cope said regarding the potential for Emergency Services Districts in Guadalupe County.

“With everyone working together we can come up with some kind of solution. We are going to have to take into account first and foremost the safety and well-being of our residents,” Cope said.

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