— By CHRISTIN COYNE
Parker County is growing but area fire departments have been struggling to keep up with the demand for services with traditional funding from donations and the county.
That’s why members of the Cool-Garner Volunteer Fire Department are requesting annexation of their fire service area into taxing entity Emergency Services District No. 7 in November.
The department presented at the June 11 ESD No. 7 meeting a petition signed by more than 150 area residents requesting ESD No. 7 place the issue on the November ballot.
“Our department is very grateful for the funding of commissioners court is providing and has provided but it no longer meets our needs,” Cool-Garner VFD Chief Rodney Robertson said. “That’s the whole reason for the annexation.”
The 13-member department operates out of one fire station with a county-purchased water tanker, a fire engine and two brush trucks and serves about 57 square miles, including the City of Cool and the Garner community.
“We can’t do anything we want to do,” Robertson said. “We’re just maintaining.”
If voters approve the annexation, the City of Cool and unincorporated area north of Mineral Wells Highway in the Garner area would join ESD No. 7, which would be responsible for providing fire and emergency services to the area and could levy a property tax of up to 10 cents per $100 valuation under state law.
Due to an adjustment in the Parker County funding structure, their budget went from $26,000 to $42,000 this fiscal year.
With an annual average of about $2,500 in donations, the total annual budget still leaves the department maintaining the status quo as the call volume increases and unable to replace aging trucks or other expensive equipment, according to Robertson.
“The only answer for our service to grow was to go the ESD route,” Robertson said.
The department is one of just two fire departments in unincorporated Parker County that aren’t currently part of an emergency services district.
To meet medical needs in the area, the department recently began providing another service without additional funding from the county or hospital district.
With no ambulance station in the western part of the county, the department began providing first responder service in August to their own fire service area as well as portions of the Adell-Whitt area, according to Robertson.
The first responder service for medical calls helps bridge the gap until the arrival of paramedics from Weatherford, Springtown or Willow Park LifeCare stations.
The volunteers are routinely ahead of the responding ambulance by about eight minutes in some areas they serve, according to Robertson.
Since they began providing the service, the number of calls they are responding to has increased approximately 75 percent, according to Robertson.
The department is feeling a pinch in the pocketbook in other areas, as well.
They’d like to upgrade their 1997 model fire engine, purchased used about four years ago.
It has developed some issues with the worn-out pump that make it difficult to use and maintain their ISO rating during their annual pump test, according to Robertson.
It would cost $15,000-$20,000 to fix the pump alone, according to Robertson, adding that replacing the old engine with a newer model used truck could run the department about $150,000.
Both brush trucks are in need of significant repairs, as well.
As the wildland fire season approaches, it’s something they have to consider and plan for, according to Robertson.
There are several reasons the department wanted to go with ESD No. 7, Robertson said.
They’ve trained monthly with the Millsap and Greenwood departments for the last three or four years, he said, adding that the departments work well together and most of the calls include the three departments.
“We felt like the leadership and board of commissioners for the ESD have their act together,” Robertson said.
The district also has the lowest ESD tax rate in the county and has had paid daytime staff longer than any other district in Western Parker County, Robertson noted.
Paid daytime staff is something they need to be thinking about, Robertson said, noting that because the department has only a few medically certified volunteers, sometimes they don’t have any certified volunteers available to respond to a medical call.
The volunteers have put many man hours into making sure the people of the communities they serve are as well protected as they can with the funding they have and want to make sure that continues, Robertson said.
The ESD board of commissioners voted to accept the petition and will soon hold a public hearing, according to ESD No. 7 President Johnie Herbert. If the board calls for an election, voters in both the area to be annexed and ESD No. 7 will vote on the issue.
Last November, voters approved annexation by ESD No. 7 of the Millsap VFD service area.