SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — The San Marcos Fire Department breaks ground Friday on a replacement fire station No. 2, a bigger facility that can accommodate more firefighters as the city grows.
It comes as city leaders anticipate the results of a consultant’s report on staffing levels within the department. Fire chief Les Stephens expects it to highlight what he already believes — the department should hire new firefighters to bump up the daily minimum staffing levels.
Right now, the department staffs a minimum of 17 firefighters per 24-hour shift (though a typical shift is 22 firefighters). Stephens would like to have a minimum of 26 per shift, meaning the department would need to hire 33 additional firefighters over the next several years.
“It would be nice to be there right now, honestly,” he said. “I think that’s realistic given the city’s growth.”
There are currently six open positions with the department.
When Richard Howser started at the department in 1980, it looked a lot different. Three 24-hour shifts of 10-men each staffed the stations. The minimum staffing was seven people.
Howser, an engineer (responsible for driving the fire engine) started at station No. 2 all those years ago; when he did, he planted a pecan tree from seed. Like the tree, the department has grown up a lot over those four decades.
“Now it’s up to 23-man shifts,” he explained. “And we have five fire stations; when I first started here, we only had three fire stations.”
The city was different back then. The population was 23,420; it’s now more than 2.5 times bigger. Buildings are getting taller, too, as Texas State University’s enrollment expands and students need more places to live.
“We’ve seen a lot more vertical development,” Stephens explained. “It takes three times as many people to address a fire on the third floor or above.”
At current staffing levels, if a major fire breaks out high up in one those buildings, “I think it’ll be a struggle. It really will. We’ll really expect a lot out of our guys; we’ll expect all of our mutual aid partners to come and assist.”
Iconic Village fire
More firefighters on staff would not have saved lives during the July 2018 fire at the Iconic Village apartments, Stephens said. There was a delay in reporting the fire, and the five victims had already died by the time the first engine arrived.
“Some of…the severity of that fire was due to timing and not a lack of resources,” he said. “Our guys did a great job trying to battle that.”
More crews might have been able to save some property, though. The city called every firefighter on duty to the apartments, but it still wasn’t enough to stop the flames from spreading to adjoining buildings.
One or two more engines with crews to run them would have helped, he said. “I think the city needs to move that direction as quickly as is fiscally possible.”
The current station No. 2 is an old duplex the department has used since the 1950s. It’s so small, the new fire engine doesn’t even fit inside unless it’s weighed down with 500 gallons of water to compress the suspension.
Friday’s groundbreaking starts a 10-to-12-month building process before firefighters will be dispatched from the location in the new La Cima subdivision in northwest San Marcos.
The new station will be modeled after fire station No. 4, a newer building that can accommodate modern fire gear, as well as more firefighters. The city is moving to bigger facilities to allow the department to add a second company at each of the new stations, doubling the staffing at each.
A sixth fire station is also in the works, funded by 2015 bond money. The contract will go to bid next month, Stephens said, and construction should start in 2021.
The department will then have to wait for a new bond before it can build any more stations; until then, Stephens will have to make do with the space — and staffing — he has.
Howser, meanwhile, is set to retire this year, opening up another spot in the department. He hopes the city decided to fill it with several new seeds.
“We need the manpower,” he said. “Things are getting bigger. Just because they’re newer, it doesn’t mean they won’t burn.”