Legal dispute rages over control of fire department equipment

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

KATY, Texas - A lengthy legal dispute between the West I-10 Volunteer Fire Department and officials with Emergency Services District 48 is keeping millions of dollars’ worth of life-saving equipment in limbo. At issue is more than $4 million worth of fire trucks, SUVs and other gear currently in the possession of West I-10.

For 36 years ESD 48 funded West I-10’s Volunteer Fire Department with tax dollars. The department provided fire and EMS service to 130,000 people in the western part of Harris County.

The dispute began last year when district commissioners voted to transition to a system with more paid firefighters and the creation of an ESD fire department. The plan was for ESD 48 to assume control of West I-10’s fire stations and equipment and manage the day-to-day operations. West I-10 would still oversee volunteers.

"They had a contract with West I-10, they breached the contract," said West I-10 board president, Capt. Jose Ramirez. "We had a service agreement with ESD 48. A service agreement means you pay us for a service."

[Web extra: View lawsuit PDF]

Even though West I-10 was funded largely with tax dollars, Ramirez contends the department is actually a nonprofit entity, and therefore all the equipment and real estate belongs to the department. Ramirez said this is why the department is fighting to keep control of several fire trucks, SUVs and other gear.

"We're a private organization, so that now is ours," Ramirez said.

The problem with keeping all that equipment is that West I-10 is a fire department that no longer responds to emergencies. As of August 17th, all 911 calls were transferred from West I-10 to the new ESD 48 department. In November, the fire chiefs for Katy, Cy-Fair, Willowfork and Westlake fire departments signed letters stating they had mutual aid agreements with ESD 48 and not West I-10.

"So essentially you're a fire department that doesn't fight fires?" asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

"At this time that's correct," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said the department still provides CPR classes and does “PR events” in the community.

"That equipment belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County ESD 48," said ESD 48 Fire Chief Jeff Hevey. "It would be nice to have it back."

Hevey couldn’t comment directly on the legal dispute, but a lawsuit filed by ESD 48 reads the equipment in West I-10’s possession was bought with tax dollars and "belongs to the District, which is the taxing authority."

Since West I-10 would not relinquish control of its vehicles, ESD 48 officials said the district had to come up with nearly $3 million to purchase new trucks and ambulances more than a year ahead of schedule.

[VIEWLetters of mutual aid agreements]

Hevey said the district had to spend additional funds to outfit firefighters with protective gear. Hevey said when ESD 48 assumed control of one fire station, all the protective gear was gone.

"That's helmet, coat, pants, hoods, gloves," Hevey said.

"All that was gone?" Arnold asked.

"All that was gone," Hevey said.

Hevey said the department had to initially spend $130,000 to rent gear and another $450,000 to buy all new gear.

"What happened to all that gear?" asked Arnold.

"The equipment, like the bunker gear, belongs to West I-10," said Ramirez.

"All that apparatus, several million dollars’ worth of equipment, is just collecting dust," said Arnold.

"Again, that’s why we tried so hard to get ESD 48 to honor the contract," said Ramirez.

West I-10 and ESD 48 are suing each other in court and the case is scheduled to go to trial in May.

"What are you going to do with all that equipment, even if you do get to keep it?" asked Arnold, since West I-10 is no longer part of the 911 system and has no mutual aid agreements with other departments.

"So, perfect world scenario would be that the commissioners wake up and see the mistake that they’ve made and that they’ll sign a contract with West I-10 again," Ramirez said.

"Do you really think that’s going to happen?" asked Arnold.

"Well, possibly," Ramirez said.

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