The Austin City Council on Wednesday debated an on-scene staffing reduction for the Austin Fire Department as a response to intersecting vacancy and budget issues.
The foundation of the discussion was the Austin Fire Department’s ask for $3.5 million to cover a budget gap for the upcoming year. Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and Chief of Staff Tom Dodds met with Austin City Council on Wednesday to discuss ways to address the department’s $3.5 million budget gap.
The Austin Fire Department currently faces 126 vacancies, according to department spokesperson, Michelle Tanzola. Kerr said that retirements are trending upward while the number of students in cadet classes is in decline. That combined with the department’s current model of requiring at least four firefighters per to-scene fire engines requires overtime pay to become a larger and more frequent expense.
According to Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, the fire department's vacancy gap is growing. She said a 2014 contract negotiation impasse, in which they could not hire, exacerbated the issue.[/caption]
Ed Van Eenoo, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer, said the budget equation between savings from vacancies and larger expenditures on overtime to fill those vacancies is a “complicated equation.”
In 2007, the council passed a resolution that boosted the number of firefighters per engine from three to four. Wednesday’s conversation focused on the projected consequences of going back to the pre-2007 model.
According to a comparison from Kerr and Dodds between 2006-2007—the last time the department required three firefighters per apparatus—and 2015-2016, the increase to a fourth firefighter produced enhanced results. The department was six percent faster in getting water on fire and completion time of all tasks during a low-hazard structure fire was faster by five minutes.
The number of incident-related job injuries fell from 88 to 56, and the number of fire deaths fell from eight to five. However, 2006-2007 had twice the amount of fires of 2015-2016–2,241 compared to 1,034.
While the change would produce a financial impact, Dodds said the department’s response model is based on having four firefighters on an engine, and the proposed staff reduction would have a substantial “operational impact.”
District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter, said the extra person on the scene relieves the wear and tear on the individual firefighters.