The city of Whitehouse on Tuesday decided to enter into an agreement with the Whitehouse Volunteer Fire Department and also contract with the Emergency Services District No. 2 for its newly created municipal fire department to provide fire services outside city limits, Assistant City Manager Kevin Huckabee said.
He said the city, which established a municipal department this summer with a mixture of paid certified firefighters and trained Whitehouse volunteer firefighters, now requests that current valued volunteers assist in making this possible.
Earlier this month, the volunteer department voted in favor of the agreement with the city of Whitehouse to support the municipal fire department with volunteer firefighter
assistance and volunteer fire department equipment, Huckabee said. In exchange, he said the city will provide all necessary cost in maintaining and operating the equipment for the volunteer firefighters to provide such services. Paid firefighters will be employed by the city of Whitehouse and meet all Texas Commission on Fire Protection regulations.
It's “an agreement where city will fund the VFD and support us, but it's also a mutual aid agreement where we work to assist them,” said Lt. Mike Yost, with the volunteer fire department.
The municipal fire department and the agreements between the city and volunteer fire department and city and ESD No. 2 go into effect Oct. 1.
Huckabee cited numerous benefits to the agreements, including no tax increase for Whitehouse residents; certified fireman on staff 24/7; establishing a short and long-term planning process tied to the city budget; and combining city and Whitehouse Volunteer Fire Department resources with ESD No. 2 “to accomplish like goals for the area.”
City Manager Mike Peterson said last month that the city has talked for years about eventually having to get a municipal fire department, and doing so puts the city in compliance with state law.
Yost called the move “a step in the right direction.”
“It brings a lot of resources in play that can … work with the volunteers to improve training (and) response times,” he said.
For instance, he said it puts in place a crew that will man the central station on East Main Street at all times, so firefighters can respond immediately without having to respond to a station first. He estimated that as many as 10 minutes are added to a call when a firefighter has to drive from home to the station and then respond.
Yost noted that the agreement also leaves the volunteer department intact — with its own entity, own officers and own board — and gives residents a municipal department that will respond to all calls in the fire district, without a tax increase or negatively affecting homeowner insurance.
But Kyle Stephenson, vice president of the volunteer fire department board of directors, has said at that time, board members has not met and approved the final contract that was voted on Tuesday.
He also said in an email that the vote did not represent the full membership of the volunteer department. He said the contract was not presented first to the volunteer fire department board for final approval, and submission for a vote at the next scheduled meeting “as per our usual operations.”
Traditionally, he said a scheduled vote is announced several days, if not weeks, in advance, so all volunteer department members can weigh in. He said the vote earlier this week represented about half the membership, and, if it had been placed on the agenda for a scheduled vote, the final tally would have been “much more representative of our fire company as a whole.”
“Several questions still need to be answered and further research done in order that the opinion of every member ... be heard,” Stephenson wrote in the email.
He said how equipment will be used and funded also needs to be addressed.
City council members approved creation of a municipal fire department, which entails a fire chief and paid firefighters, during a meeting in July. The position of Whitehouse Municipal Fire Chief has been filled by John Hargis.
Whitehouse Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ronny Fite said at the time that he believed city officials were moving too fast, but, “We will have to work with it to the best of our ability.”
Attempts to reach Fite for comment on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
City Councilman Mike Jeter said Wednesday that Fite informed city officials that he plans to retire later this month.
Huckabee, at the time, noted positives about the city's approach, such as no proposed tax increase to residents of Whitehouse, certified/professional firemen on staff at all times and maintaining compliance with the Texas Government Code and commissions that oversee regulatory authority for fire protection services.