Wednesday, June 12, 2024

County allocates ARPA funds for Indian Harbor VFD fire rescue boat

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In a 3:2 vote, the Hood County Commissioners Court approved the allocation of ARPA funds totaling $380,000 to the Indian Harbor Volunteer Fire Department for the intended purpose of purchasing a fire rescue boat, during its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

This decision was made after the hour-and-a-half-long controversial discussion and failed motion involving allocating $498,852.40 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to two nonprofit organizations: Rancho Brazos Community Centers and Forward Training Center.

During a previous Hood County Commissioners Court meeting on Nov. 14, the court had also approved the allocation of the $5.6 million pandemic-related ARPA funds in a 3:2 vote.

The vote allocated $3.5 million to construct three new combined fire and EMS stations in Indian Harbor, Baccus and DeCordova; $1.1 million to expand the current Pecan and Cresson Fire Departments; $500,000 to the Hood County Sheriff’s Department for new equipment; and $25,000 to the Hood County Constables for new equipment — resulting in a total of $5.1 million.

"In the last board, the focus was on the fire and EMS structures and supporting law enforcement,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson said during the Nov. 28 meeting. “There weren't enough funds to provide the fire department with all the needed equipment. Fire Marshal Jeff Young provided the best price option on standard apparatus if the county were to purchase several apparatuses at once. However, the one-off here is the fire rescue boat. There is only one needed and according to Mr. Young, does not impact the price of the other apparatus, so Indian Harbor went back and reduced their original request."

Samuelson said Young had informed her the fire boat would not only fight structure fires on the lake but could also be used to “feed a truck” that’s fighting a structure fire.

“Our only limiting factor on using that boat is a source of water supply in the amount of hose that we carry on all the trucks. So technically, in theory, we could stretch the hose two miles if we had to, but probably would not likely do that,” Young said. “If we were going to use this as a water source, we would find a place that the trucks had at least a couple hundred feet access to the lake and then they can pump directly into the trucks from the boat.”

Young also stated that the Cresson Volunteer Fire Department has purchased a portable pump and motor and has started working on agreements with homeowners who have swimming pools, so firefighters can use the water from those pools in their apparatus.

"That's in lieu of all the tankers and everything else, so even with the tankers, they're great for moving water from point A to point B,” Young said. “It still becomes a source of where you get that water from, so the departments are getting very creative on how we can provide water and water delivery. This is just one of those tools in the toolbox that will help us utilize the water that we already have.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Wilson asked Young if the Brazos River Authority has “authority over the water,” and Young replied that it does.

Wilson also asked Young to confirm Indian Harbor has one boat, the BRA had two lake boats, one Jon boat and one air boat, and if the game warden has two lake boats and one Jon boat.

“When I spoke with the game warden yesterday, he advised me they have one boat on Granbury, and I also spoke with both of them yesterday and inquired on what kind of rescue equipment they have on their boat,” Young told Wilson. “Their first question was: define rescue equipment?’ Basically, the equipment they say that they carry on their boat is a certain amount of rope and life jackets.”

Wilson also asked if it is true that the amount for the boat was also included in agenda item No. 4, for buying additional fire equipment, which stated: Consider and take appropriate action to approve the purchase of fire and EMS apparatus. This would include five 3,000-gallon tankers, four 2,000-gallon pumper tankers, reimburse Granbury VFD for their recently-purchased tanker and purchase one ambulance for Texas EMS. Also to consider the purchase of one fireboat if not handled by other means. Total project estimated amount, $7,434,000. Funding source to be determined by Commissioners Court.

Young confirmed he added the No. 2 fire boat agenda item they were currently discussing onto No. 4 in case it was not approved.

Wilson then made the motion to not go forward with allocating the remaining ARPA funds to Indian Harbor VFD for the intended purpose of purchasing a fire rescue boat as it had already previously been addressed in item No. 4 on the agenda. The motion was seconded by Hood County Judge Ron Massingill.

However, before taking the motion to a vote, Samuelson then pointed out that the two agenda items were placed on the agenda separately by her and Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews.

“There's two different mechanisms here. What Commissioner Andrews has put on here is a separate source of funding,” she stated. “I didn't know this was going to be on here until after I already had put the use of the ARPA funds (on agenda item No. 2). The ARPA funds, as I mentioned in my opening, we talked about the way that it was used in the last court to address structures, buildings and sheriff's department and this is a one-off. Yes, there can be other sourcing available for what Mr. Andrews has on here for the road apparatus and for the fire trucks and pump trucks. But this is a one-off, and it can be taken out of the amount that Commissioner Andrews has put on here once we get to there. We don't know what the disposition of number four will be, so that's my comments.”

“I think that was one of the things is we're gonna need to determine the source of funding on this other stuff, so by separating that out, I mean you're just saying we can use the ARPA funding for that one particular item and take it out of item number four,” Andrews said.

The court then allowed comments from speakers. Hood County resident Tina Brown began by asking the court why this was a discussion in the first place.

“We've already said the fire department is a 501(c)(3) and y'all don't want to give any money to a 501(c)(3), so I'm not sure why we gave them any money. But regardless, how many fires in the last year would this boat have put out?” Brown asked the court.

“A lot,” Andrews replied. “I don't have that number off the top of my head, but this is something that you pull up to a boat ramp and you turn that boat ramp into a firefighter instead of having to drive from Arrowhead Shores all the way down to Granbury to get a water show going on. This is a mobile thing of fighting numerous fires.”

Brown again posed her question, asking how many fires took place on the lake in the past year where the county would have benefitted from having a fire rescue boat on hand.

“For this past year, I could speak for the two fires on the shore that there was no other way to get to them,” Young said. “One of them was a rather large boathouse that was off of the cliffs. There's about a three-story boathouse, and they had no other way to get to it as long as it is at the cliffs.

“They don't just use it for fighting fire on the lake. It's also designed to help with rescues, boats, diver support — these guys are out just about every holiday when the lake is crowded to assist stranded boaters and boats that have broken down. There have been several drownings over the last several years where boats like this are used for the recovery, so it's not just the fire engine that floats off the water. It's also used for other support mechanisms.”

Brown had also asked where the fire rescue boat would be housed and if it would be kept on the water or on a trailer.

“The boat itself will be housed in Indian Harbor, which is kind of centrally located between DeCordova and Pecan,” Young replied. “They have the option to keep it on the water, but what we have found is a lot of times we can get to locations quicker by trailer than we can by water.”

Young also mentioned that during a drowning over by the dam park, a boat was needed to help with recovery. He explained that it was quicker for the fire department to “trailer” the boat over to the BRA boat ramp near the dam than it was to drive around DeCordova Bend.

Brown then asked how long it would take for someone to get the boat on the trailer and “drive it all the way around to the boat.”

"It depends on the time of day, the day of the week, and the time of the year,” Young said. “I'll remind you that all 280 firefighters that we have here are all volunteer, so there's no guarantee that anybody's going to show up.”

“I understand that, and I had many conversations over Thanksgiving with some of my firefighter friends and said, ‘Why are we spending so much money on firefighting equipment when we're not paying anybody to show up?’” Brown said. “I guess I just don't see a return on investment on this. It was one fire that you mentioned, and it was a boat dock. Nobody was hurt. We get a better return on investment if we invest it in our children and our hungry people and those nonprofits. Indian Harbor is a nonprofit. It is a 501(c)(3). It is no different than Rancho Brazos. I suggest you vote against this.”

Jeff Harper, member of the Indian Harbor VFD, explained the department’s average time for getting the boat out of the station and on the water is under six minutes and there is “not one boat call that we missed.”

“This vote that we're requesting does not just work for a fire that is sitting on the lake,” Harper said. “It's not just the boat dock that's on fire. It's not just a boat accident. It's not just the actual drowning that we help recover with the divers, everything like that — this is a floating hydrant on the water that we have in Hood County.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle then said that the “real question” is “how many structures around the lake are homes.”

"How many boat docks because this could potentially service all the homes that are within 1,000 feet of the lake?” Eagle asked. “That's a question, and the other question is not really a question, you've answered it, but you can pull in pretty much anywhere with a tanker. If you've got a fire in X sector of the county, and you've got three tankers working and let's say one of your tankers can be at the lake or close to the lake for refilling instead of having to come from another place, correct?”

Young responded and confirmed that Eagle was correct.

Granbury resident Morris Duree said he is “always in support of our fire departments,” but said in looking at the financial aspects of this, he agreed with Brown and questioned how often the fire boat will be used.

Duree also asked if it would be better to have equipment on trailers that backup to the lake and throw hoses in to access the water.

Young replied the department does have some of those as well, but said you can’t always get the trailer close enough to the lake.

“Again, I think to Mrs. Brown's point, I think our rare occasions that we really needed this would be minimal compared to the expenses that we need to put our money in other areas,” Duree concluded.

With a motion already on the table to not go forward with allocating ARPA funds to the Indian Harbor VFD, the court took it to a vote, which failed 3:2.

Samuelson then made a motion to allocate the ARPA funds to the Indian Harbor VFD for the intended purpose of purchasing a fire rescue boat, with allocation of funds not to exceed $380,000, which would leave a balance of $118,852 in the ARPA funds. The motion passed 3:2 with Massingill and Wilson voting “No.”

The court later moved to item No. 4, which stated: Consider and take appropriate action to approve the purchase of fire and EMS apparatus. This would include five 3,000-gallon tankers, four 2,000-gallon pumper tankers, reimburse Granbury VFD for its recently-purchased tanker and purchase one ambulance for Texas EMS. Also to consider the purchase of one fireboat if not handled by other means. Total project estimated amount, $7,434,000. Funding source to be determined by Commissioners Court.

"We've looked at this. We have currently four of the county pumper tankers that are set for refurbishment at approximately $350,000 each, and there's been some back-and-forth at the end of that where (you’ve still got an) over 20-year-old apparatus,” Andrews said. “Right now, we're not able to get those in the door at all. We're not able to send those for the refurbs, and what are they averaging? Six to nine months on turnaround on that?”

“Six months and a week was the last one," Young replied. “I think part of why they're not wanting to have the discussion with this is they're still fighting supply chain issues, but because we have a late delivery clause in our contract — which we're the only ones that have ever done that on a refurb — they don't even want to take a truck unless they know they can get all of the parts and the people there to work on them, so I haven't been able to get them to even have a discussion as to when we might even talk about sending them.”

Young explained the four trucks remaining are 2001 pumper tankers. He said ordinarily in the fire department, the lifecycle of a fire truck is 10 years.

"I think our guys and our fire departments have done a very good job of maintaining them and keeping them running and in good condition up to this point, but even at that, if I were to call them today and order trucks, we're probably still looking at two years,” he explained.

After some discussion about whether to pay for the new trucks up front or to use debt service to purchase them, it was recommended by County Auditor Becky Kidd the court needs more information before going through with purchasing.

“I guess really what I need then is the authorization to even go out to bid and request the information in the first place,” Young said.

“I think that’s probably the first step in the process is to put this out to bid and get some hard numbers out,” Andrews said, as he then made the motion to authorize purchasing to put the fire and EMS apparatuses out for bid. The motion carried unanimously.