In South Texas County, an Investment in Survival as Oil Boom Stalls

Thanks to a surge in drilling, La Salle County was able to finance a multi-million upgrade to its emergency response capabilities. While the oil boom has stalled, the dramatic improvements are here to stay, officials say.

La Salle County, about 90 miles southwest of San Antonio, has professionalized its once all-volunteer firefighting force and invested in new trucks and equipment. The overhaul has slashed response times and spurred more residents to trust first responders, officials say.

COTULLA — David Nickell thumbed over a photo of yellow-orange flames on his cell phone. The early morning pipeline explosion from several months ago was among the more memorable days in a job full of them. 

“We’ve got lots of little fireballs out here,” said Nickell, La Salle County's Assistant Fire Chief, as three of his men took a quick break to chow down on breakfast tacos.

The daily grind for his cross-trained team of firefighters and emergency medical technicians can be as tough as it is unpredictable in a community of brushland and oil wells. In an instant, one responder might transition from tending to a baby in an incubator to fighting a brushfire or responding to a turned-over tanker truck.

Yet the past three years have been, if anything, even more of a whirlwind for La Salle County.

Until late 2013, the department used just a handful of volunteers — Nickell included — who fought fires in old, mismatched gear. The responders never knew when they'd be pulled away from their day jobs.

Then the oil boom happened, and the community of roughly 7,400 found itself in the middle of a modern-day gold rush.

In the past year and a half, that dash has slowed to a standstill. But not before the county invested some of its newfound tax revenue into a fire and rescue department that now touts 22 full-timers, 25 part-timers and a new fire station — with an assortment of new vehicles and tools. The upgrade has slashed response times, a major boost to quality of life in a county that’s otherwise grappling with an oil downturn.

And even if the oil workers never come back, the dramatic improvement in La Salle County's emergency response is here to stay, officials say.

“When people call 911, now they know they’re getting help,” said Daniel Mendez, a full-time responder who commutes from Hutto, about three hours northeast. 

La Salle County now spends about $2.5 million each year on its emergency response efforts, seeing through a nearly tenfold boost in resources planned before a recent plunge in oil prices slowed the local economy.

The beefed-up force has two new brush trucks and five ambulances. Loaded with new gear — power drills, chainsaws, hazardous materials suits and a full offering of medical tools — the vehicles equip crews to handle the wide range of scenarios hurled at them.

The county is also putting the finishing touches on a $1.8 million fire rescue station in Cotulla, and it plans to break ground on Encinal's first fire station later this spring.

If that doesn’t sound impressive compared to, say, a big city department, consider where La Salle County was less than three years ago. 

The county had no paid firefighting staff until November of 2013, when it hired 14 paid part-timers as part of grander plans.

“There was no way the volunteers could keep up,” said County Judge Joel Rodriguez Jr.

The upgrade began as a frenzy of oilfield activity brought a host of new hazards: hundreds more chemical sites and thousands more trucks transporting flammable liquids down Interstate 35 and smaller, crumbling roads. Crashes more than tripled between 2010 and 2014.  

As recently as early 2014, the department had just one 12-year-old fire engine and two brush trucks. And the third-party ambulance service the county contracted with rarely made good time. 

Now, response times inside Cotulla have plummeted from an average of 20 minutes to five. In Encincal, where the department stations two staffers, it has trimmed the delay to four minutes from 29.

Michelle Joseph, founder of the Dallas-based firm Soteria Solutions — a consultant for local governments and emergency responders that is advising on La Salle's overhaul — said the county’s efforts stand out among rural Texas communities. She hopes others will see it as a model. 

Officials say all the upgrades should eventually lower residents' property insurance rates, which soared during the boom, by reducing safety risks. 

Don Smith, a Soteria Solutions employee and La Salle County's interim fire chief, speaks proudly of a recent “true save,” a patient without a heartbeat that medics resuscitated, along with three “near-death saves.” It’s not clear, he said, how often such events happened in previous years because record keeping was rough. But without a doubt, he said, patients now have better odds.

“That’s a big change, and when you think about it, you’re talking about lives,” Smith said.

Over the past year and a half, as the oil boom subsided, layoffs and laid-down rigs thinned traffic throughout the county. Yet responders say they are as busy as ever. Though road collisions have decreased, crews must still check up on pipelines, disposal wells and other equipment left in the oilfields, regardless of whether workers are around.

Perhaps surprisingly, the county is now seeing more 911 calls — about 1,500 per year, most of them medically related — than it ever has, boom or no boom.

Officials describe something of an "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" scenario. Before, residents didn’t trust the ambulance service, so many would find their own rides to a hospital. Now, they trust the responders. 

“We’re all proud of the men, and their response times,” said Rodriguez, sitting in his cluttered courthouse office. “These guys are so serious.”

The judge, however, has yet to cross off a key item from his wish list: a ladder truck.

Without the $1.3 million tool, the responders can’t put out fires more than two stories high. That’s a problem in Cotulla, where handful of hotels — built during the boom — rise three or four stories. And it means that high-up tank battery fires require improvisation. In one recent episode, the department rented a man-lift to elevate the firefighters and their hoses.

“We have an inherent responsibility to buy one,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a concern.”