Potter County Fire Department seeks improvement

Potter County Fire Department seeks improvement

By John Kanelis

Potter County has a peculiar dilemma in its fire protection response system.

Firefighters have good access going north and south along three major highways – the Fritch Highway, the Dumas Highway and Boys Ranch Road. But traveling east or west through the county presents a problem, according to Potter County Fire Chief Richard Lake.

How does the county propose to fix the problem? It's not an easy solution, according to Lake. "I don't think adding stations or fire equipment is going to help us there," Lake said. "Most of the coverage issue comes down to the people and having them covering those areas," he said.

Still, the Potter County Fire Department is in the midst of some major capital improvements designed to help rural fire protection and to give its paid and volunteer firefighters a more comfortable work environment.

Lake took over as fire chief in 2003, succeeding former Fire Chief Jack Bivens. He was not a newcomer to the county fire department, having served the department since 1986.

In Lake's view, the county's commitment to providing top-notch fire protection has been a long and slow process that's now beginning to bear fruit.

The Potter County Commissioners Court decided in 1973 to create a fire department, Lake said. Prior to that, individual communities "had to decide" how they were going to cope with the hazards of fire.

The county built it first fire station on Willow Creek.

Before that, though, the fire department faced a particular problem with purchasing a new fire truck, Lake said. "Around 1994 or 1995, we purchased a new truck, but we couldn't fit it into the building we had," he recalled. "We found a building on the Fritch Highway that became Fire Station 6," he said. The county then was able to park the truck it had just purchased.

Fire Station 6 was just renovated and modernized this past spring, Lake said.

But there's more construction to follow, he said.

The fire department hopes to break ground soon on a new fire station at the intersection of Soncy Road and Tascosa Road. It will replace a structure that, according to Lake, "is falling apart."

Cost of construction for the new structure is estimated to be around $2 million, although fire officials told county commissioners this past week that the final costs haven't yet been determined.

The county plans to give the existing building back to its original owners and the fire department will move into its new digs. Lake estimates it will take about a year to finish construction of the new structure. "But first we need to go out to bid," he said.

The current Commissioners Court has continued the county's commitment to improving the largely volunteer fire department, Lake said.

Part of that improvement will be in the acquisition of more modern equipment, according to the fire chief. "In 2003, when I took over as chief," Lake said, "our equipment was pretty terrible." He recalled how the county road and bridge department had purchased a new dump truck and then gave the fire department its old truck, which the fire department "retrofitted" to turn it into a fire truck.

"In the past four or five years, the commissioners have done better at replacing equipment," Lake said.

"We were so far behind other departments that we have had a tough time trying to catch up," he said. "We're still rebuilding our department and we're not yet maintaining," Lake said.

Lake said the county is "making progress" in improving fire protection, particularly in its rural regions.

The new station at Soncy and Tascosa roads, which was just approved in the county's new budget, will "give us a place where our people can stay," Lake said. "It will give us better coverage for the western part of the county."

It also will "help us increase our ability to train" firefighters.

Lake said the county has four paid firefighters and 71 volunteers who spend 20 to 30 hours of training a month. "We place a lot of expectations on our people," he said. "Our guys work very hard."

County Judge Nancy Tanner, a strong supporter of the fire department and its mission, acknowledged that the new fire station is going to cost the county "a lot of money," but added that state law requires the county "to protect its residents and that's what we intend to do."