City, county fire departments launch partnership

By Kaley Conner
Hays Daily News – January 23, 2017

When someone’s home or business is burning, every minute makes a difference; so does every firefighter responding to the scene.

With that in mind, the Hays Fire Department and Ellis County Rural Fire Department recently joined forces for a new automatic aid agreement that increases emergency response for all structure fires reported in and around city limits.

If a building fire is reported in Hays, Ellis County Fire Co. No. 5 automatically will send a responding unit to work with city firefighters. If a fire occurs in a 56-square-mile area in the county’s jurisdiction near city limits, the city of Hays will dispatch a crew.

“The idea is if you wait until you need (backup) and then call for it, it’s too late,” Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown said. “The insurance people are trying to encourage us to do these kinds of arrangements to get enough resources there to deal with things right away.”

The partnership went into effect Jan. 1 — and the first structure fire of the year was reported that same day.

When responding to a reported building fire, responders never know what they might be walking into.

As a general rule, they hope for the best but prepare for the worst, said Darin Myers, Ellis County Rural Fire chief and emergency manager.

Statistically, the most critical time for fire growth occurs in the first several minutes, which is also when firefighters often arrive on scene, he said.

“Having those additional resources there at that significant time in the stage of fire growth is important for us to have fire ground safety and personnel on the scene,” Myers said. “We always plan to expect the worst and get our resources there initially and not have to wait for them. That’s even more important out in the county, because our response times are a lot longer than within the city.”

Reported structure fires are usually not significant, but the potential always exists that an event could be serious or escalate quickly, Brown said.

“For both departments, most of the time we get sent to a structure fire, it’s a relatively minor thing with the potential for being bad,” he said. “In other words, if there’s smoke in a house, is that because the fan motor burned up in the furnace, or is it because there’s a fire starting inside a wall? And by the time we get there, how bad is it going to be? We respond to those things pessimistically.”

The city responds to county events with an average of six firefighters, a command truck, rescue pumper and a breathing air truck, which actually has been sent to county fire reports since November. The county fire department also responds to city events with an average of six firefighters, a fire truck and utility vehicle.

The ability to have more firefighters on scene immediately will be beneficial in the event of a serious fire. The harsh conditions quickly can result in fatigue, and firefighters must refill their air supply often.

“When firefighters go into a burning building with their breathing apparatus on, they only work for about 15 minutes,” Brown said. “So if you’re waiting for help to come when they run out of air and you’ve got nobody to go in, that’s not a good thing.”

Firefighter fatigue also is a serious concern when responding to events in the heat of summer, Myers said.

Long-term, the new program could boost insurance ratings for both the city and county, and possibly result in reduced premiums for area homeowners.

The Insurance Services Office gives each fire department a Public Protection Classification score from one to 10, with one being the best, according to the ISO website.

The ISO offers additional credit for the establishment of automatic aid agreements for fire protection, which can help improve an agency’s score.

The arrangement also will benefit both the city and county by allowing the departments to receive credit for the other department’s resources, which will boost fire protection for both governments at a minimal cost, Brown said.

“Nobody can afford to have all the resources you need, so it’s a way for us to share things without costing more money,” he said. “Like the city, we’re going to get credit for this fire station to protect the city, and we’re going to get credit for those six firefighters protecting the city of Hays. We’re going to get credit for the county’s engine protecting the city just like if it was the city’s resources.”

Both departments could see an increase in operational costs as a result of the agreement due to increased calls, but the extra fire protection still comes at a bargain, Myers said.

“If you look at the basic numbers each of us will receive, a fire station easily (costs) $1.5 million, real easy,” Myers said.

“An apparatus with all its tools is a quarter of a million dollars. Six (full-time) firefighters is well over $300,000, so we’re well over a $2 million benefit that each of us are receiving.”

The two departments also have been working together for mutual training opportunities, and the firefighters have been enthusiastic, Myers said.

Trainings began last year and originally were going to be offered quarterly, but firefighters enjoyed it so much the exercises were done bi-monthly, he said.

Challenges include the county’s volunteer, pay-per-call firefighters becoming more familiar with using fire hydrants to respond; county crews rely on water tanks stored on trucks. The city crews, meanwhile, will need to become proficient at responding to structure fires without the constant water supply from fire hydrants.

“Without the cooperation of all the firefighters and their willingness to want to do this together, we wouldn’t be able to make it happen,” Myers said. “It’s a great opportunity for them, and they’re buying into it.”

The city will help protect areas of the county that are near city limits, as that’s where most of the county’s urban development is located.

“The city limits really aren’t rational. You go down a street like Eighth Street or out near Home Depot, and this building’s in the county, this building’s in the city. They’re right next door to each other,” Brown said.

“There’s no rationality to how you provide service based on those political boundaries, so we’re breaking some of those down to get the city and county to work together for the benefit of the whole community.”


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