After years of working through, and resolving, countywide ambulance service, Emergency Services District No. 1 is embarking on an equally challenging task – restructuring countywide fire service.
With 11 volunteer fire departments across the county – which operate largely independently with their own chiefs and oversight boards – bringing those departments, their facilities and equipment under the umbrella and control of ESD No. 1 is sure to require time and a lot of conversation.
"It's part of the growing process for this county," said Ken Backes, who serves as a member of both ESD No. 1 and ESD No. 2.
As part of that, the relationship going forward between Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department and Mineral Wells Fire Department is on the front burner.
A meeting Wednesday morning at Mineral Wells City Hall with Backes and ESD No. 1 board member Carolyn Land, Palo Pinto County Emergency Management Coordinator Mistie Moon, Mineral Wells City Manager Randy Criswell, Mineral Wells Fire Chief Mike Pool and Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Dunn began the process of defining those relationships and responsibilities.
The Mineral Wells paid and volunteers departments have for decades worked very closely. They are very intertwined by sharing equipment, resources and facilities. Even though the paid fire department has added firefighters it still needs the volunteers to help on structure fires to ensure control and safety.
The city recently sought an agreement with the local volunteers concerning training and shared use of city-owned apparatus, equipment, resources and facilities. Pool said the Texas Commission on Fire Protection is more closely scrutinizing fire departments and tightening accountability, which has elevated concerns for the city and its liabilities in working with the volunteers.
Pool said concerns are heightened with downtown growth and new commercial developments, including the re-developments of the Baker and Crazy Water hotels, that he said requires higher-levels of training and coordination.
The volunteer department issued a letter stating they wished to remain independent and not come under oversight of the paid department. That could lead to separations of shared equipment and facilities use, which could have the volunteers looking for their own station and acquiring additional equipment and gear.
"We've got some things we need to address if we are going to go our separate ways," said Pool, who suggested the city fire department in the future might begin a reserve program for training and support.
In providing each of the county's 11 volunteer fire departments $40,000 annually, Backes said ESD No. 1 does not serve as supervisors over those departments, but rather supports their operations.
"We want to let Mineral Wells and the Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department decide what they are going to do," Backes said. "We don't want to make any decisions that are not in our wheelhouse. The volunteer fire department is a separate entity. It is in our interests to keep them as a viable option."
The Mineral Wells VFD covers a large area of eastern Palo Pinto County, responding to grass and structure fires as well as providing vehicle wreck rescue and other assistance when needed. As mentioned they augment the city's paid fire department on structure fires or anytime additional personnel or equipment are needed within the county.
Criswell said liability exposure to the city and citizens of Mineral Wells is a concern when it comes to supervision, training and using city-owned equipment.
"We have a model that we cannot sustain," Criswell said. "We cannot be responsible for people who do not want to be responsible to us. We have tried to communicate that to the volunteers. They have told us, 'We want to remain our own entity.' I think, for us, that means we are going to have to make decisions on how we move on. I wouldn't tell you that we have made any of those decisions."
Mineral Wells VFD Chief Robert Coker said the department, founded in 1895 and one of the oldest active volunteer fire departments in Texas, wants to continue providing service and working with the city. He said its members did not want to dissolve and give up its long history.
"As far as what the city brought to us was that they were pretty much told by the regulatory agency for them that they had to have oversight over the volunteer fire department, and so they wanted us to fall under the city's direction," Coker said. "The members voted and felt it be best to remain as Mineral Wells VFD."
He said the department is concerned about what will happen should its relationship with the city undergo major change or separation.
"It is definitely a concern," Coker said. "Myself as well as other officers and members of our department are concerned as to what the future holds and where the department is going to be in the near future."
Criswell said one issue he needs to further explore is a retirement fund set up by the city years ago benefiting volunteer firefighters and what it would mean should the city and volunteer departments separate.
Coker said he hopes the volunteer department will remain intact and continue serving the city and county as it has in the past.
"Every member of the department feels that we want to continue working with the City of Mineral Wells and help the citizens of Mineral Wells," he said. "We love the city and we love the citizens. Every one of us have dedicated a very large portion of our lives to the people around this community. Our wish is to continue providing the best service we can.
"Our desire would obviously not to be sitting in the position we are sitting in right now. But we are. We are going to make the best of it and continue going forward and providing the best service we can. If it comes out that we have to find a different place to be, then that is what it is."
Coker said he sees the two departments continuing to help and work with each other when needed.
"If they need our help they tone us out. If we need their help, they come out and help," he said. "Fires don't care if you are getting paid or not getting paid. We have done our best to train people. We have made a lot of strides as far as training. We have sent a lot of people and gotten a lot of certifications done. I would say 95 percent of our department are certified, or certifiable, with intro-level state fire marshal association certification. We agree with Chief Pool on the aspect of training, that it is very important. It is important to keep up with training and making sure the people are trained."
Coker said members of the two departments have met and had recent discussions and he looks forward to continued efforts to resolve the issues.
"I really don't see an issue with our organizations working together. We have a lot of history in this arena and I don't know why that would change now," he said. "I think the history in itself will help with that."