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Fire Department Bolstered as Boom Presents Hazards

As oil booms in La Salle County, so have 911 calls. In response, officials have unleashed a plan to professionalize the county's firefighting forces.

Part time senior fire fighter Richard Prado responds to a radio call about a dumpster fire at Pat's RV Park on Main St in Cotulla, a man camp that houses oil field workers, during his 24 hour shift at the La Salle County Fire Department, Thursday, January 23, 2014. Park owner Pat Niaves assists him with the hose since he is working the shift alone.

COTULLA — Richard Prado has learned a number of rules in his six years as a firefighter. Among the most important, he says, is to know your equipment.

If only he had some.

Taking inventory at La Salle County’s only fire station, an easy-to-miss garage on this South Texas town’s cracked-up Main Street, would not take long: a small, 12-year-old fire engine, two brush fire trucks and a closet with mismatched protective gear — all of it donated over the years, and much of it secondhand.

Not on that list? Baffles that stabilize the trucks’ water tanks and prevent the vehicles from tipping during a fast turn. Or a simpler tool: a ladder reaching more than 24 feet.

This is nothing like working a big-city fire crew, said Prado, who splits time between here and Travis County. Elsewhere, “you have backup, you have equipment, you have personnel,” he said during a 24-hour shift last week — one he worked alone. “Here, that’s not the case.”

Five years ago, that dearth of resources did not matter as much. The department saw little action across a sleepy county of about 5,800. There was a routine traffic accident or two and the occasional brush fire.

Then everything changed.

New drilling technology has thrust La Salle County, which sits atop the oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale, into the center of an energy boom, bringing extensive growth and a new set of hazards — including a sharp increase in traffic accidents.

LaSalle County firefighters now answer hundreds of 911 calls a year, about 90 percent of which are related to oil and gas development. Local officials are hiring professionals to bolster the county’s fire department, providing relief to the handful of volunteers who struggle to meet increased demands.

“We had to do something, because staff was being beat,” the county’s chief executive, Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr., said in a cluttered courthouse office that overlooks an oil rig and two orange-yellow gas flares. “There was a need — a very important need to protect human life.”

Rodriguez’s motivations are also economic: He hopes the investment will attract businesses that will linger after the shale is tapped out. Property insurance rates have soared amid the boom, he said, and increasing public safety will help bring them down.

“You say, ‘Hey, look, we’re in it for the long haul,’” he said, in a conversation that often circled back to the buzzword “sustainability.”

La Salle County, now with a population of 7,100 and thousands more in transient laborers, is the second-biggest oil producer in Texas.

Each day, as many as 20,000 cars, crude haulers and trucks pass through the county, which is between San Antonio and Laredo.

The growth has torn up farm roads and led to an increase in traffic accidents, mostly involving large commercial vehicles, which has led to greater concern about fires or chemical spills.

Of the 231 crashes in La Salle County last year, 125 involved commercial vehicles, according to Texas Department of Transportation data. Eight crashes were fatal, including a collision of a semitruck and an oil tanker, which triggered an explosion that melted both vehicles.

The county is also dealing with an increase in collisions between trains and trucks, officials say. Nearly 20 occurred last year.

In 2009, La Salle had 88 crashes, with 14 involving commercial vehicles. Two proved fatal.

While the accidents have sapped most of the energy of the firefighters, there are other threats. Along with new restaurants and convenience stores, development has brought 20 hotels — most are made from wood and stand three or four stories tall, well out of the reach of the department’s only ladder.

Firefighters must also contend with an increase in hazardous chemicals sites, which according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency have increased to more than 1,000 from fewer than 60 in 2008. Though there have been no serious accidents involving these sites, officials are closely monitoring them.

For the biggest emergencies, the La Salle crew often gets outside help, but that takes time to arrive, so local firefighters are responsible for clearing roads and squelching smaller fires, among other tasks.

Since November 2013, the county has hired 14 part-time, paid firefighters — Prado included — who will eventually transition to full time.

In the coming months, the county aims to round out the crew to 24, build two fire stations and buy engines, protective equipment and other tools. While the county will bear most of the cost, the oil producer Talisman Energy has chipped in. To maximize efficiency, the county is looking for firefighters who are also trained paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

Also under the plan, Johnny Gomez, Cotulla’s longtime fire chief, will become a liaison between the oil and gas industry and emergency responders.

Gomez, whose current day job is on the oilfields, said it has been difficult to coordinate his crew, which works throughout the county, or to arrive quickly at emergency scenes. He works about 30 minutes outside of Cotulla, the county seat, and must stop first at the fire station. Also, the never-ending work has proved exhausting.

“It’s pretty hard getting a call in the middle of the night,” he said. “You don’t get any sleep, and then you have to go to work in the morning.”

Such stress on emergency responders is typical in shale counties, said Michelle Joseph, founder of Dallas-based Soteria Solutions, which consults with local governments, emergency responders and the oil and gas industry and is leading the La Salle County overhaul. But the county’s plan to address the problem stands out, she added, and could serve as a statewide model.

Neighboring McMullen County is looking to follow La Salle’s example, said Jason Cooper, its volunteer fire chief, who no longer ventures outside the county amid worries he will miss a call from local dispatch. The county, which does not own a fire engine, hopes to eventually build a new fire station that would also house local EMT’s.

“Our calls have increased dramatically,” Cooper said. “It pretty much happened overnight.” 

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