A reality of fighting fires

As is reported in the pages of this week’s Herald, there was another major house fire in Houston on Monday night.

As is commonplace in these parts, a whole bunch of firefighters from several departments responded to the scene. And as is often the case with structure fires in Texas County, the phrase “slow response time” was bandied about as the incident unfolded.

And as is sometimes the case when that happens, I feel led to offer a few reminders with regard to that issue.

There are currently 11 fire departments that operate within the boundaries of Texas County: Cabool, City of Houston, Clear Springs, Houston Rural, Licking, Plato, Raymondville, Roby, Summersville, Tyrone and Mountain Grove. They are all staffed and run by people who don’t get paid for their efforts (i.e. volunteers), except the City of Houston department where personnel get a small monetary compensation for each response.

None around the county have anyone manning them at all times. Inside the walls of each station, there is nobody continuously waiting for fire calls to come in – just trucks and equipment.

So when a fire call takes place, the folks who have taken it upon themselves to be the responders must respond from places away from their designated fire stations.

That means, for example, they could be sitting in the living room watching “The Voice” or an “X-Files” rerun and suddenly a text comes in indicating something’s burning. At a moment’s notice, they must jump up, drive to the fire station, suit up in a relatively elaborate set of firefighting gear, fire up a fire truck (or maybe several), and then drive to the location of the blaze.

There’s nothing automatic about it. The process takes some time, and there’s quite literally no way to speed it up since mankind has not yet figured out how to manipulate the space-time continuum.

The bottom line is, without people sitting at the ready inside a given fire station, response time by our local fire departments can’t be and won’t be any faster than it is (and has been for years). That’s not a cop-out, it’s what’s real.

When examined objectively, having a fire engine arrive at a fire scene 20 minutes or so after a call goes out isn’t bad, given the fact that the people who bring it there were scattered around the community like any other set of citizens.

The alternative to the current state of firefighting in Texas County is finding a way to fund one or more “real” fire departments that have full-time employees standing by for immediate response to calls.

Obviously, that would require a sales tax (1/8-cent or whatever) or some other revenue source – which is something I’ve been saying for years would probably be a good idea.

But if nobody takes action to make that happen, it won’t. And that’s OK, if that’s what’s viewed as OK.

It’s simple: Having paid firefighters hanging out at fire stations is the one and only way to guarantee faster response times. There’s no disputing that and there’s no point in pretending it could be any better the way things are now.

So until that happens (if it ever does), the reality is what it is: Firefighters can only get there as fast as they can – not a moment sooner.

I have grown to entirely comprehend and understand that, but I know there are many others who don’t. But I also understand that why they don’t is due to how much ignorance and misunderstanding there is with regard to what is and isn’t and can and can’t be in terms of our local small town and rural fire departments.

And, yes, I also understand how hard it must be to watch flames dancing around inside your home as you wait for someone with a big water hose to show up. That has to be gut-wrenching and heartbreaking and I wouldn’t wish such a thing on anyone.

But that, unfortunately, is an all-too-real possibility in the circumstance we live in.

So here’s the situation: This is one of the many “trade-offs” that go with living in a place like this. Move to the city, and presto, you’ll be in the land of salaried firefighters, well-funded fire departments and faster response times (potentially).

Broken down to its core, I see this subject as not being about a people not doing their jobs, it’s about a system with inherent shortcomings and it’s about choice.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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