WCESD #4 focused on keeping up with growth in new year

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The second fire station in Williamson County Emergency Services District (ESD) No. 4 is taking shape on the east end of the district, and planners are keeping a close eye on the west end as they think toward Station 3.

“We’re already trying to find property for Station 3 right now,” said WCESD No. 4 Chief Anthony Lincoln. “I’m ready right now, if we can find it, to lock it down. It’s hard to find as it is, but it will be even harder to find as people develop. We’re talking to developers again to see how we can fit into their projects and make it work.”

Keeping up in terms of staffing and location of services is the name of the game for the ESD as the area grows.

Call volumes continue to increase, but at a steady pace Lincoln said they have been able to predict and manage.

“We have not seen a big change in call volume, but we’ve been going up seven or eight percent each year,” he said. “There were a couple of years there we were up 10 percent.”

In 2018, the ESD opened a temporary station east on SH 29 until Station 2 is completed on Ronald Reagan in Santa Rita North. That expansion and additional staffing has helped improve service in a key way.

“What we’ve been watching more than anything is we’ve been watching our response times drop since opening that temporary station,” Lincoln said. “We were at about eight minutes, but we’ve brought that down to about seven and a half minutes across our whole district, which is pretty good considering the size of our district.”

Growing pains include answering questions on what the third station might look like, but Lincoln said that will be easier to determine once Station 2 is open.

“It will be interesting for us as an organization when it is finished, how we go back and evaluate it as we get ready to build another station,” he said. “Do we want one like this? Do we take this one and size it down some or is it the right size?”

The open date for Station 2 has been slowly pushed back a little at a time, primarily due to weather.

“We’re still on a May opening for the new station,” he said. “They still haven’t got the roof on completely, but the sheetrock is going in. They have to finish out painting before they put the roof on it. They have the driveways poured. That was the big kicker for the longest was all that rain. For a while there we had a ton of rain days, something like 18 of them. That’s more than three weeks worth of work.”

Another casualty of the weather was the on-site retention pond.

“We had to do a change order to go back and redo the (retention) pond, because it didn’t have vegetation growing in it and silt filled in, so it will have to be redone and reshaped,” he said.

With the new station comes the need for more firefighters, and the ESD budgeted for three new ones and a Staffing and Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant (SAFER) through the federal government will allow the ESD to add six more.

“Staffing is at a premium trying to get good candidates,” Lincoln said. “We are going to exhaust our list and start a new one to finish. We should get about six from this process we are finishing up and will have to go back to get the others.”

Competition is tight for firefighters in Central Texas.

“You have a lot of people in this area who are hiring,” he said. “I think the normal turnover and growth is keeping people busy hiring. For three years we’ve been working on our package to get it better because we knew it was going to happen,” he said. “It could be worse if we hadn’t been working on it and getting our benefit package up there.”

The ESD raised its starting salary up $12,000 over four years through incremental budget increases.

With talk of potential new apartment complexes and other new retail, Lincoln said the next big addition, along with Station 3, will be the ESD’s first ladder truck.

“We’re going to open Station 3 with a ladder truck,” Lincoln said. “We’ll put a ladder truck in the Central Station and push an engine into Station 3. The need is already here for it. If the need is beyond a 24-foot extension ladder, which the roofs of many of our two-story houses are, it becomes a ladder truck operation for us.”

A ladder truck will cost the ESD about $1.5 million, compared to the engine recently brought into service at $650,000.

The need for space means even converting the current Central Station into administrative offices, maintenance and storage space has been considered down the road.

“We looked at whether this building might just be used for admin, training, maintenance and things like that,” Lincoln said. “We keep uniform and protective clothing in stock because when guys mess it up we have to replace it. That’s an evaluation we’re going to have to go through. Do we rebuild a new Central Station here or do we just do something with admin, which would free up a little bit but not a whole lot in this building.”

Tax revenue, particularly from the sales tax, continues to climb throughout the ESD, giving Lincoln confidence the future needs will be able to be met.

“Our budget number was like $47,500 (monthly), but that total has gone up $10,000 a month each year since we started budgeting,” he said. “We’ve upped what we budget each year as the numbers go up.”

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