Katy Fire Department Continues Its Evolution to a Full-Time Department

By George Slaughter

Second of a three-part series

With Katy’s continued growth, it is not surprising that the fire department would also grow from being a part-time, volunteer operation to something more complex, with firefighters needing skill sets besides just fighting fires.

With a new station forthcoming, the city is looking for firefighters—but not just any firefighters.

Candidates must have a structural firefighter certification, basic level or higher, from the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. They must also have at least an emergency medical technical basic level certification.

Candidates with paramedic licenses are preferred.

Fire Chief Russell Wilson said that having firefighters also trained as paramedics helps everyone. It gives the department flexibility should more firefighters or paramedics are needed for a given situation. It also benefits the firefighters and paramedics in that they can switch—sometimes from shift to shift—to stay fresh.

Wilson said the typical firefighter applicant today is in his or her 20s.

Taking Care of the Firefighters

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, people started taking another look at the firefighters and first responders who are the first to go into harm’s way. Wilson cited two major health issues that firefighters face.

The first issue is cancer. Wilson said that firefighters are six times more likely to develop cancer than the general public. The odds for cancer in firefighters is increased because of the environments that firefighters work in, with heavy protective equipment worn in hot temperatures, often with toxic gases and fumes.

The second issue is heart attacks. Firefighters have periods of high adrenalin when facing dangerous situations in their jobs. Between the stresses and lulls in the job, along with the exposure to toxic gases and fumes, firefighters are put at higher risk of heart attacks.

To address these issues, the fire department has instigated a wellness initiative, where everyone gets regular health checks. Wilson said Katy did not have such a program in the past.

“We’ve found several people who would be dead today” had not such a program been implemented during his previous stint in the Irving Fire Department, Wilson said.

A third issue, one in which research is still being conducted, concerns post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD, as it is known, is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event—things that firefighters face regularly.

PTSD has become known through the stories of military personnel returning from war. Wilson said that many firefighters join their departments after serving in the military.

Different people handle stress in different ways. Wilson said that some need to be debriefed so they can share their thoughts and address their emotions. Others prefer to not bring things up because the scenes can be traumatic, and they would prefer to forget. In some cases, PTSD has been cited as a cause for suicide.

“We want to set up relationships so firefighters can get help as needed,” Wilson said.

From a Volunteer to a Professional Fire Department

All of this is a long way from 1947, when the Katy Volunteer Fire Department was first established.

According to the fire department web site, 14 men met in a schoolroom to establish the department. Money was donated by local citizens for the purchase of an Army surplus crash truck.

Today the fire department has 42 firefighters in the field, Wilson said. The current fire station, at 1417 Avenue D, will eventually have a counterpart at Bell Patna Drive and Katy Mills Circle.

Equipment has been increased and modernized, with three Class A pumpers, heavy rescue and booster trucks, four ambulances, and a ladder truck. The station is also equipped with numerous other types of firefighting, lifesaving and rescue equipment and safety gear for the firefighters.

Among the most important equipment is a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. Mayor Chuck Brawner said much research was involved in upgrading the communication systems.

“The technology in there previously was not suitable for public safety, especially on EMS and fire department vehicles,” Brawner said. “As part of the reorganization we wanted to make, that (improving the communication) was one of the key elements.”

Brawner said the new technology meets National Fire Protection Association standards. It enables more details, and mapping, on emergency calls received. It also improves dispatch and response time.

“It took a while to get it installed,” Brawner said. “The radios that the fire department did have did not meet standards. We had to go in and buy all new radios.”

Brawner said that when officials were researching their options for communications equipment, it was important to not just look at what was needed now, but whether the equipment would meet future needs.

“This will meet our needs down the road,” Brawner said