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No trouble wanted in fire department merger

January 7, 2019

A desire to avoid the kind of protracted legal battle that plagued a pair of competing first responder units in Katy led officials from two other area fire departments to pursue a consolidation plan in a more measured and deliberate fashion.

Beginning Jan. 1, the Cypress Creek Volunteer Fire Department and Harris County Emergency Services District 13 officially pooled their resources to form a single agency. The firefighters from CCVFD will be absorbed into HCESD 13 with personnel and firefighting equipment now being named the Cypress Creek Fire Department. Officials said the more than 80,000 people who live in their coverage area - a 32 mile section of northwest Harris County - shouldn’t concern themselves about the changes.

“This is an internal reorganization, you will not notice any substantial changes to personnel or how we operate and interface with other agencies,” CCFD Chief Richard Lieder said in a statement.

Leaders of both agencies backed the merger plan and 100 percent of paid and volunteer staff accepted positions with the new merged department. Any current contracts and mutual aid agreements will be honored until they can be transferred to the new agency, officials said.

“The result of the restructuring will be a more efficient delivery of services and public support to the community,” officials said in a statement.

The consolidation also is expected to save money. In the past, each department was required to conduct an annual audit costing about $10,000.

“With one entity now, that’s a $10,000 savings,” said Lt. Simon VanDyk, the department’s spokesman.

The discussions began a couple of years ago as officials slowly began transitioning the personnel and the command staff from the rank of CCVFD to ESD 13. The move allowed them to participate in state benefit programs such a a pension plan.

“This is kind of a model for how it should be done - two parties coming together and working it out,” VanDyk said. “The public is not going to see any difference.”

There are now about 150 firefighters in the merged department - with about 40 percent being volunteers - and they are preparing to hire eight more full-time firefighters. Department officials said they now intend to staff all of their stations around the clock using a combination of paid and volunteer crews.

“You probably won’t be able to tell who is who. (A volunteer) may have more fires under their belt than a paid guy,” VanDyk said. “We still have a very strong volunteer corps.”

The explosive growth in the area was a major factor in the decision to combine the departments and streamline some of their functions.

“There aren’t enough volunteers in the world to handle the continued growth,” VanDyke said. “At some point, we’re we going to have to go out and have a full-time paid command staff.”

Almost a dozen fire departments - a combination of fulltime and volunteers - cover the greater Katy area and cooperation can sometimes be strained. In early 2017, an 18-month legal battle over fire department vehicles and buildings between Harris County Emergency Services District 48 and the West I-10 Volunteer fire Department finally came to an end when they decided to split their assets. The agencies were partners before ESD 48 took over emergency services from the volunteer department. The resolution came about three months after a state district judge awarded the assets to ESD 48.

VanDyk, who also works for ESD 48, said Cypress Creek Fire Department transition has been much smoother.

“The important thing is to do it well. Let’s figure out how to make this happen so everyone is happy,” he said.

mike.glenn@chron.com

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