As Austin's three public safety branches continue to see widespread vacancies, police, fire and EMS officials have released detailed plans calling for hundreds of new positions to be added to their departments over the coming years.
As of this spring, Austin-Travis County EMS is short 22.44% of its budgeted sworn staff positions; the Austin Police Department is down 10.5%; and the Austin Fire Department has a vacancy rate of 8.59%. Between those three departments, around 450 total budgeted first responder positions are now unfilled—in addition to dozens of unsworn civilian staff.
A May 19 memo from Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano included those findings and detailed reports from AFD, APD and ATCEMS officials covering their vacancy situations and future staffing outlooks. The spring update was released as a result of City Council's call for a formal plan to fill vacancies proposed earlier this year by District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly.
While the departments are each facing shortfalls of more than 100 positions, their situations do not stem from the exact same causes. However, officials did find common links through the departments' recruitment processes and the city's capacity to effectively train new recruits. With overlapping cadet classes and a noted lack of space at the Public Safety Training Center in Southeast Austin, scheduling and instruction also remain top concerns.
“The existing facilities at [the] Public Safety Training Center along with availability of operational sworn staff to augment assigned training staff are the major limiting factors to increasing the capacity to graduate cadets," Arellano wrote.
The departments also projected how they might grow in the near future and how the city can budget for dozens of new hires and the facilities to house them. APD and ACTEMS are eyeing more than 14% increases to their forces in the next few years, while AFD recommends growing its staff by more than 6%. Those considerations are expected to be a focus of the city's summer budget planning sessions beginning in July as well as ongoing contract negotiations with labor groups for all three branches.
Austin-Travis County EMS
Despite its smaller overall force, ATCEMS is experiencing the highest vacancy rate of the three departments by far with more than one in five positions now vacant. That statistic was "artificially increased" after more EMS positions were budgeted last year without being filled, although a staffing need remains, EMS Chief Robert Luckritz said.
Luckritz also pointed out that the medic sector is experiencing hiring issues nationwide given a shrinking pool of applicants seeking EMS certification in the "ultra-competitive" field.
Specific to Central Texas, Luckritz and Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie have also said the department's pay rate and Austin's rising cost of living are key contributors to hiring difficulties and an "unusual" number of medics quitting over the last year.
Strategies the department may look to next include waiving prerequisite and work experience requirements for new hires, adding more training staff and increasing recruitment efforts particularly targeted at underserved communities. The department is also looking at a reduced hiring cycle to allow those interested to apply anytime.
“The need for additional resources to balance workload is immediate. However, recruiting, hiring and onboarding will take time," Luckritz said.
A recommendation from Luckritz to grow the EMS department would see its budgeted roster increase from 665 to 761 sworn positions by fiscal year 2025-26.
Austin Police Department
The issue of filling Austin's police ranks has drawn consistent attention over the past year through last fall's failed political push to enact an officer staffing floor, the reboot of APD training academies, and Police Chief Joseph Chacon's support for a new data model recommending ideal staffing levels at APD.
While overall vacancies have fallen slightly in recent months, Chacon said the department expects the number of priority 911 calls in Austin will continue to rise through at least 2027, requiring many more new officers to adequately respond. That trend is also coming after a two-year period in which the number of officers voluntarily leaving the department rose "precipitously," Chacon said. Any vacancies at upper ranks are typically filled through promotions, leaving lower patrol officer slots empty.
In addition to sworn officers, a loss of civilian staff is a "substantial challenge" APD has seen as nearly one-fifth of unsworn positions remain vacant. Those employees in divisions dealing with research, communications and records management have been quitting due to low pay, lack of promotions, excessive workloads and stress, Chacon said, all of which could be addressed with a bigger civilian staff. The department is also exploring possible stipend offerings to attract new workers.
Chacon said by FY 2026-27, he would like to see APD's budgeted force increase from 1,809 to 2,074 sworn positions with a targeted increase in recruitment and training opportunities.
Austin Fire Department
Fire Chief Joel Baker said some of his department's recommendations for improvement include a reduced hiring timeline and a staffing boost for civilian positions.
Unlike other departments, AFD operates on a two-year hiring cycle, an extended schedule the department is now seeking to cut down. That factor, as well as required filtering of the applicant pool to "minimize adverse impact on African American and Hispanic candidates," are the greatest recruitment challenges his department faces, Baker said.
According to Baker, AFD's most recent round of recruitment brought in more than 3,100 applicants, 1,516 of which ended up taking entry exams. That list was reduced by nearly 70% over the course of the hiring process, which includes screening initiated in response to previous complaints that the department was systemically blocking minority candidates from being hired. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually stepped in to investigate AFD and screen its applicant pool to avoid a disproportionate effect on Black and Hispanic candidates. The department had a final pool of 460 top candidates last year.
Baker also expressed his preference to switch to an annual hiring process, although that change is "logistically and financially impossible" for now. AFD is currently in its first of four cadet classes launched following the 2021 hiring process, each of which could graduate around 45 firefighters. The 2023 hiring process does not start until next May, and its cadet classes are expected to follow in January 2024.
AFD already has some longer-term hiring and expansion plans in place tied to the addition of five new fire stations in areas of high need citywide. Alongside that construction comes a need to staff the new stations and ladders, and Baker recommended gradually funding more positions and equipment at the new West and South Austin facilities over the next few years.
Overall, Baker asked the city to consider a plan that will increase AFD's sworn force from 1,257 to 1,337 positions by FY 2024-25.