What’s happening?

Dozens of Austin’s emergency centers are set to receive new generators as a recent survey found almost 50 fire and emergency medical services stations are lacking backup power as well as several police stations and community centers.

The generators will come at a $20.52 million price tag, which was approved by Austin City Council on July 20 and will be funded through the Austin Building Services Department and American Rescue Plan Act dollars—federal funds given to local governments to recover from the pandemic.

“Climate change is creating more serious and more frequent extreme weather conditions,” said Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis—who sponsored the measure to investigate Austin’s emergency backup power system—in a statement. “We’ve seen firsthand the consequences of these weather-related disasters, and it’s important we ensure our first responders are able to provide for the community during these emergencies.”

Long story short

During winter storms Uri and Mara, many Austin-Travis County EMS stations lost power, did not have access to working backup generators and were handling higher-than-usual call volumes.

Ambulances are an “emergency room on wheels,” said Wes Hopkins, assistant chief for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services. They have complex medical equipment that needs to be climate controlled at all times. When ambulances aren’t running, they need to be plugged in, and if they can’t be plugged in due to a power outage, they either need to continuously run or be relocated to a station with adequate power, Hopkins said.

“If we have to move the truck, that just means that citizens are waiting longer for that ambulance to respond back into their territory,” Hopkins said. “These ambulances are placed strategically throughout the city in the county to effect a 911 response. And so [we] need that backup generator so [we] have a continuity of operations.”

During these outages, medics who are working 24-hour or longer shifts don’t have access to hot showers, quick microwaveable meals or a warm place to take a break.

“[It] really just helps with the overall efficiency and just allows [medics] to have that mental acuity to keep going when the fight is on,” Hopkins said.

What’s next

Austin-Travis County EMS stations may have to wait years before having adequate backup power as generators are in high demand throughout the country, according to city documents.

“I will say that it's not easy to add a generator,” Hopkins said. “You can't just go down to the store and buy this. This is a very specialized item that we have to order. So with supply chain shortages, this will be a multiyear approach to fix this.”