Future of firefighters as volunteers weighed
The problem, according to PAVFD Chief Scott Mack, is that the pool of possible recruits continues to shrink as Mustang Island’s cost of living continues to rise, and folks who don’t make a lot of money keep moving away.
“The working man who moved off, his house has turned into a weekend house,” Mack said.
Mack and Port Aransas City Manager Michael Kovacs said they are taking steps to avoid manpower problems and deal with other firefighting issues in the future. The two on June 11 finished compiling a report that’s designed to help guide the city on matters involving the fire department over the next few years.
PAVFD is made up of 20 volunteer firefighters. However, “in terms of consistent volunteers weighed
and dependable firefighters that we count on to respond, the force can deploy approximately 13 to 14 firefighters during a weekday fire event,” the report says. “Weekend response levels are challenging.
Part of the reason for that is that some volunteer firefighters might be out of town and unable to quickly respond when a fire breaks out on a Saturday or Sunday.
“As funds permit, and as the department’s force of consistent, dependable firefighters is reduced to levels approaching 10 firefighters, active recruiting should be launched,” the report says.
That will mean the city will create a recruiting program and pump money into advertising and promotion, according to the report.
If those efforts fail, the city could roll out incentives for volunteers, the report said. Incentives could include increasing fire drill and call pay, the report said.
All volunteers are paid $10 per drill, Mack said. The amount they’re paid per call depends on their certification level, and their certification level depends on how much specialized training they have, he said. A new recruit is paid $32.50 per call. With more training, they go to the next step up: $37.50 per call. With still more training, the next level of pay is $42.50 per call.
Other possible incentives: Free trash service, free basic natural gas service and free admission to the pool at Port Aransas Community Park, the report says. The city also could develop a program in which city employees are paid to leave their day jobs to fight fires or assist the EMS, according to the report.
If active recruiting to the all-volunteer department doesn’t work in the long run, Port Aransas could convert its department to a combination of volunteer and fulltime professional firefighters, according to the report.
“Of all our challenges, sheer manpower is our biggest problem, and drives all the triggers,” Kovacs wrote in the report. “Our demographics are changing, and our onisland working population and firefighters are aging.
“As the town becomes more urban, expectations will rise for a professional force, and volunteerism will continue to go down,” Kovacs wrote. “This is a natural sequence and is ultimately unavoidable.”
But the city should stick with an all-volunteer force “as long as it’s safely viable,” Kovacs said in an interview. “There are just a lot of advantages to it. We’ve got a good group of dedicated, passionate volunteers. They love what they do. And the city has minimal costs to taxpayers for funding operations.”
If staffing remains a problem even after establishment of a volunteer-professional department, a new fire station should be built in the area of the Newport Dunes development, and it would house more firefighters, according to the report.
With construction of the new station, Port Aransas also would work out an “auto-aid” agreement with the Corpus Christi Fire Department. That would mean CCFD would, for a fee, automatically respond from its Mustang and Padre Island stations to calls within the Port Aransas city limits, along with Port Aransas firefighters.
Auto-aid agreements typically are shortterm solutions, Kovacs wrote.
If staffing problems continue even after all these measures, Port Aransas would need to establish a full-time firefighting force or consolidate with CCFD, according to the report.
“Studies and comparisons should be run to see if rolling PAFD into CCFD could be more effective and cheaper in the long run,” the report says. “At this point, the study should also examine if combining both fire and EMS with CCFD or independently as PAFD is advisable.”
Port Aransas city government has no plans to accept a recent offer from the Corpus Christi Fire Department to take over firefighting responsibilities in Port Aransas, Kovacs said.
“At this point, it’s just way too expensive,” Kovacs said. “It’s not something we need at this point.”
Under that scenario, Port Aransas possibly would have to turn over all of its equipment to CCFD, Kovacs said. PAVFD probably would be disbanded, but the volunteers possibly would be hired by CCFD, he said. Port Aransas would have to pay an estimated $1.8 to $2 million per year to the 17 professional firefighters in salaries and benefits, Kovacs said.
PAVFD’s portion of the city budget was $199,890 for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to Darla Honea, the city’s finance director.
Letting CCFD take over eventually could be a good idea, despite the projected monetary cost associated with that, Kovacs said.
“You would be part of a large, integrated force with a lot of capabilities, and you don’t have day-to-day management and overhead,” Kovacs said. “They would have to manage from downtown (Corpus Christi).”
The firefighting report was compiled largely because a close examination of the subject was a goal set forth last year by the Port Aransas City Council. In addition to working with Mack to produce the report, Kovacs also got input from Corpus Christi Fire Chief Richard Hooks and Portland City Manager Mike Tanner, who talked about his experiences in the recent conversion of his city’s volunteer force to a full-time department.