After three years, Austin looks to answer fire station shortage

City council and staff first learned about a fire station shortage impacting five areas of Austin three years ago and are now putting action and funding toward what has long been described as an “immediate need.”

Travis Country, Del Valle, Goodnight Ranch, Davenport Ranch and Canyon Creek each have fire department response times roughly between 12 minutes and 16 1/2 minutes. Citywide, 90 percent of calls were answered in a typical response time of 9 minutes and 4 seconds in 2017.

The national standard—from the time the dispatcher takes the call to a unit arriving on scene—is under 8 minutes for 90 percent of calls. Local public safety officials said those extra minutes can be crucial.

Some council members have blamed poor annexation policy. Austin annexed the five areas between 1997 and 2015 but did not follow up in providing the proper public safety services. In 2016, former Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said at the time of annexation there was no will by council to take on the expensive projects.

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter, blamed the inaction on a mix of bad policy, lack of political will and bureaucratic stagnation. She said she would no longer accept budget constraints as an excuse.

“In Austin we provide a lot of things that other cities don’t, and that’s great,” Garza said, citing programs like the equity and sustainability offices. “But I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve forgotten about the most basic services a city should provide.”

The issue of inequitable public safety service was reignited after council learned toward the end of 2017 that some residents in shortage areas were receiving increased home insurance premiums due to their distance from a fire station.

“The fact that people in our community are paying higher insurance costs because we are not providing a certain level of care is real significant,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.

The 8-minute standard

The Austin Fire Department aligns its goal with the national standard of respond
-ing to 90 percent of calls within 8 minutes.

Austin Fire Chief Tom Dodds said the 8-minute window is crucial in containing a structure fire to its room of origin. He said a fire can double in size every 60 seconds, and heat rises at about 90 feet per second, or roughly 60 miles per hour.

However, fire department responses are not limited to fires. According to numbers from the fire department, more than 67 percent of the department’s calls in 2017 were medical. Dodds said because of the number of fire stations, the fire trucks can get to a call faster than emergency medical service vehicles, and responders can begin critical life-saving intervention like CPR, applying a defibrillator or controlling bleeding.

“Time is of the essence,” Dodds said. “Every citizen in Austin deserves and should receive the same standard of coverage and response regardless of where they live.”

Filling public safety gaps

On June 14 council members approved a resolution to build the five permanent fire stations. Del Valle will have a permanent fire station in two years, the Travis Country neighborhood will have a station in three years and the other three areas having a service shortage will receive stations by 2023.

Council also approved $6 million for design and land acquisition and also set a goal of starting construction on the first of five permanent fire stations in the Del Valle area within 12 months followed by Travis Country starting construction in two years.

“It’s mind-boggling to see how this has become such a challenge when it’s just a basic thing we should be providing as a city,” Garza said.

Garza said the issue has given her new perspective as council heads into budget season. She said before she supports any funding for new programs, she will be making sure the city is adequately providing the most basic services to all residents first.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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