White Settlement volunteer firefighters strive to meet city's needs

WHITE SETTLEMENT -- As heavy rains from Tropical Storm Hermine drenched the city this month, volunteer firefighters anxiously waited to see whether Farmers Branch Creek would surge over its banks while others helped a woman repair a leaking roof.

The creek didn't flood -- despite 6 inches of rain -- but it was a close call.

And when temperatures topped 100 degrees during the summer, some of the city's 41 citizen firefighters helped residents at the Legacy Apartments who were overcome by the searing heat when their air conditioning conked out.

The firefighters opened shelters at area schools to ensure that everyone had a cool place to go.

The sometimes heroic, and always neighborly, actions of the firefighters show that the volunteer spirit is alive and well in this suburb on Fort Worth's western edge.

But an increase in emergency calls -- up to 180 a month, far more than what typical volunteer firefighter departments in Texas answer -- may be a sign that this city of 16,500 will have to consider establishing a full-time department as the demand for services continues to grow, officials said.

"I don't think many know we are a volunteer department," said White Settlement Fire Chief Brian Thompson. "Until people are affected by something, they don't always know or appreciate what you do."

Workload growing

The Fire Department's workload, and how to support it, is of vital importance.

Clearly, the department is busy. Its call volume is double that of many other volunteer fire departments and it continues to grow. Last year, it responded to 1,623 calls and this year it's answered 1,710. The typical volunteer department gets up to 800 calls a year.

The department -- which has mutual-aid agreements with Lockheed Martin and Naval Air Station Fort Worth and cities such as Westworth Village and River Oaks -- operates on a bare-bones annual budget of $320,000 a year. Still, its firefighters are well-versed in what to do if an aircraft goes down or if there is terroristic activity, Thompson said.

Only a few part-time employees are paid -- Thompson earns $17,000, and Fire Marshal R.J. Schwartz $13,500. Volunteers serving as dispatchers earn $13.60 an hour. To help soften the blow of spending time away from their families, the city also pays crew members' water bills up to $100.

As the number of calls has increased, the city began looking at ways to compensate firefighters for responding to calls ranging from apartment fires to chest pain.

Thompson had hoped to use a proposed compensation plan, which would have paid volunteers $200 when they respond to more than 25 calls a month, as a recruiting tool and a first step to a full-time department, which would cost about $2 million a year.

But White Settlement's financial problems quickly doused his hopes.

Tough financial times

White Settlement is in financial straits after seeing its property values decrease by 16.4 percent this year, the steepest drop in the county. Still, council members voted to leave unchanged its property tax rate of 68 cents per $100 of assessed value and take $400,000 from reserves to balance the budget.

As a result, the council also voted not to fund Thompson's proposed incentive pay plan, and the notion of creating a full-time department does not appear to be in the city's immediate future.

Despite that news, Thompson said no one is quitting the fire service.

But some of the volunteers are taking part-time jobs because of the economy and are not always available, he said. As many volunteers gathered for their weekly training session Thursday night, they spoke proudly about how their service has changed their lives.

Capt. Mike Cochrane, 51, a 19-year veteran at the department, taking a break from overseeing firefighters as they practiced climbing ladders and working with fire hoses, said that his day job is building electronics, but that his volunteer time is devoted to firefighting.

"If you call, these guys would do anything for you," Cochrane said.

Chris Campbell, 31, who started training as a volunteer in January, said he wants to change careers from a construction project manager to a firefighter. He's already passed some of the requirements in Arlington.

Recently, Campbell was called to his first house fire. The house had to be torn down, but the neighbors' homes were saved, he said.

"It was pretty scary. It was quieter than I thought; I was expecting to hear that roar you expect. I was the first one in [the house]," Campbell said. "Once you get busy, you do what you're trained to do and think about the details later."

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696