by Priscilla Seals
Those residents of Blanco who attended Monday night’s Town Meeting regarding Emergency Services District #2 (South Blanco ESD) were given a unique opportunity to learn about the history and operating procedures of the district as well as to voice their concerns and expectations of what emergency services should be provided.
A number of emergency services personnel were present at the meeting, including EMS Director Mike West and EMS Officer Rick DeWolfe; Blanco VFD Assistant Chief Lynn Hicks, and members of the Air Evac Life Team. Moderator and Commissioner Ann Hall also recognized ESD#2 commissioner Theresa Turner. Other commissioners include Wayne Dworaczyk, Mary Ann Millard, and newly-appointed preventive medicine physician Darwin Labarthe.
Ann Hall presented what she called “a quick lesson” on the history of the emergency services district entity, which was created in 1987 by the Texas Legislature through a constitutional amendment. Although a special election in Blanco County in 1988 to vote on the formation of a Blanco County Emergency District failed, a Rural Fire Prevention District was created the following year by a slim margin of three votes. Finally in 1999 an election was held in the Blanco Independent School District, by which the Blanco RFPD #1 became the current Blanco County ESD #2. As Hall explained, the boundaries of the ESD correspond to the boundaries of the school district except that the ESD does not cross county lines. However, as was explained later, districts have a mutual assistance agreement by which EMS and fire personnel respond to emergencies which occur over the lines. ESD #2 covers 200 square miles and serves between 5500 and 6000 residents, plus hundreds traveling up and down Highway 281. The VFD made 254 fire runs in 2011, 207 in 2012, and 81 this year through March. EMS made 616 calls in 2011, 664 in 2012, and 420 so far for their current fiscal year.
The powers of the ESD, which is a political subdivision of the state, include imposing and collecting taxes ($.05 per $100 valuation), “ the ability to acquire, purchase, lease, manage, occupy, and sell real and personal property, enter into and perform necessary contracts, appoint and employ necessary officers, agents, and employees, sue and be sued, accept and receive donations, lease, own, maintain, operate, and provide emergency services vehicles and other necessary or proper apparatus, instrumentalities, equipment, and machinery to provide emergency services, “ and most important, the power to contract with other entities such as the Blanco VFD, EMS, and the Air Evac Lifeteam of helicopter EMS personnel out of San Marcos, which includes three helicopters. Hall stressed, “Operating an ESD is just like operating a business except we are using public tax funds and everybody should be watching us!”
ESD #2 has an annual operating budget of over $400K, with an estimated $493,633 in revenue from property taxes in 2013, although as ESD commissioner Theresa Turner commented, not everyone pays their taxes; so the district’s budget must include paying a delinquent tax attorney $3500 to collect those taxes. In addition, major budget expenses include the following: the EMS annual contract ($216K), the VFD annual contract ($163,170), fees to the Appraisal District ($16,200), insurance ($1200), professional fees to auditor and attorney ($3K), and a $3,900 fee for use of the Verizon communication tower.
In answer to the question of why individuals are charged for fire and EMS services beyond the taxes they are assessed, Hall explained that taxes do not cover all the costs of service. If EMS or Air Evac do not transport someone, they are not reimbursed for gas, meds, or supplies. Medicare and Medicaid payments are also not covering expenses as they have in the past. The cost of emergency vehicles and equipment can be staggering, as Hall pointed out. For example, Blanco VFD Engines 25 and 26 cost about $130K each. A brush truck, which carries water and is sent out to brush fires, has a replacement cost of $150K. The large tanker truck, which refills brush trucks, was bought in 1997 and has a replacement cost of $200K. Protective clothing for each fire fighter must be replaced every ten years at a cost of $2500 for each set. The “Jaws of Life” equipment to pry people out of wrecked vehicles costs $12K.
State-of-the-art equipment for EMS is also pricey. A Frazer ambulance, one of which is on order now, costs $134,900. A Life Pak 12, which includes a heart monitor, defibrillator, heart pacer, blood pressure monitor, and EKG, costs $40K. A Lucas CPR machine, which Hall says performs “perfect CPR every time,” costs $15K. As Theresa Turner pointed out, operating expenses increase as fewer people are willing to serve as volunteers, resulting in paying qualified personnel. There are also costs for the land and stations, and a Communications Center must be staffed. Grants are available if districts have a plan in place, hence the importance of developing a Strategic Plan.
In the second portion of the meeting, facilitator Jack Twilley invited those in attendance to write their expectations of what an ESD should provide, their concerns about the quality of services, and personal experiences. The responses were then grouped into categories and put on an easel. Input will form the basis of a Strategic Plan for the district, which will include a Mission Statement, a Vision Statement, and a Values Statement. The final plan will be available to the public, either online or in print. Those in attendance were invited to provide their e-mails for that purpose.
Expectations of what emergency services should provide included timely response, a fully-equipped ambulance, competent and kind emergency workers who have a high level of medical training, and adequate water to fight fires.
Concerns included adequate water to fight fires. It was suggested that a district-wide database listing water sources and gate codes would facilitate more effective service. Someone else expressed concern that the fire department does not have fittings to attach hoses to rainwater collection systems. One person said that he is unable to get fire insurance because Blanco has a low ISO (Insurance Standards Office) rating. Someone else pointed out that directions to properties differ depending on which internet search engine is used. Another person questioned where 911 calls go from a cell phone. Twilley expressed his concern that a plan is needed for coordinating resources across county lines in case of a major emergency such as that in Bastrop or in West, Texas. Another person said it is difficult for a large fire truck to get down his road. Someone asked why both EMS and fire personnel often respond to the same emergency call. EMS director Mike West responded that EMS may be needed to help an injured firefighter, and that it is helpful to have both services available to take emergency measures such as CPR. In response to a concern that Air Evac will not transport someone who is receiving CPR, Program Director Terri Thompson responded that the person must be stabilized before transporting.
In contrast, those who related personal experiences said that response time was quick and that personnel worked efficiently in their emergency.
The final part of the meeting consisted of comments by Hall on what each individual can do. Suggestions included taking a CPR class, leaving money to the ESD in one’s will, and of course, not inadvertently setting brush fires. She referred to the “stupid tax,” which bills people who inadvertently set fires. She also invited those in attendance to become more involved with emergency services by contacting her by phone at 830-833-9915 or online at(firstname.lastname@example.org) or by visiting one of the stations.