Austin City Council addresses fire station shortage in Northwest Austin

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Neighborhoods along RM 620 in Northwest Austin, including Canyon Creek, are no strangers to rapid growth.

In recent years, residents have seen increased traffic, new apartments, more commercial development and a rise in Austin Fire Department response times.

Canyon Creek—which is only accessible off RM 620 via Boulder Lane­—is one of five areas in the city that is slated to receive a new fire station in the coming years that will help firefighters respond quicker to calls.

“It’s not the geographic distance that’s the problem; it’s the traffic they run into every time with a fire truck,” said Randy Lawson, a member of the Canyon Creek homeowners association board. “Even with the sirens on, [a fire truck]goes onto 620, particularly at the peak hours of the day, there’s just no place to go.”

Although City Council and staff have known for three years about a fire station shortage affecting five areas of Austin, city leaders have just determined and funded a plan to fill the immediate need.

On June 14 council members approved a resolution to build five permanent fire stations in the five areas of the city with the greatest need for fire services by 2023. Canyon Creek’s station would be the last one built in 2023.

Council also approved $6 million June 14 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.

Recognizing the need

Canyon Creek, Davenport Ranch, Del Valle, Goodnight Ranch and Travis Country each have fire department response times of roughly between 12 minutes and 16.5 minutes. 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.

AFD Battalion Chief Bob Nicks, who also serves as president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said the association mailed fliers to Austin residents in May to alert residents of the need for more fire stations.

“A lot of citizens don’t realize when the response times are slow and the effect it can have on them,” he said. “Citizens put a lot of trust in the fire department that we will take care of business. AFA wanted people to know we do a great job most of the time, but sometimes we fall short and the areas being discussed are those areas.”

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 AFD 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 such as 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.”

In 2015, Nicks said AFA funded a project to update a model that showed where AFD’s deficiencies are and took those results to City Council, which approved a resolution in March 2016 to start looking into the fire station shortage.

The issue of inequitable public safety service was reignited after council learned in late 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

AFD aligns its goal with the national standard of responding to 90 percent of calls within 8 minutes.

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 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 such as 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 gaps in public safety service

Nicks said higher fire department response times are generally the result of three reasons: higher demand, congestion and not having enough fire stations.

“We have many places in the city where we have adequate station coverage, but we’re still not meeting our response times in those areas,” he said. “Those are either demand [issues], but mostly they’re from congestion issues. That can be solved too with emergency signal preemption [software].”

In May, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved funding for this software in its 2019-22 Transportation Improvement Program. Nicks said the software will allow the city to anticipate where the fire truck will be and change traffic signals to green lights in anticipation of a truck going through an intersection.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, whose District 6 includes Canyon Creek, said he hopes the city expedites implementation of the new software and also continues to be fiscally minded.

“District 6 has today more fire stations than any other district,” he said. “The challenge with sprawl development is you have to build more stations for fewer people. What I hope we can address is ensuring we’re not forcibly putting ourselves into big tax increases every year because we’ve allowed the city to grow in a way that’s fiscally unsustainable.”

Garza said the issue has given her new perspective as council heads into budget season. She said she aimed to make sure the city will adequately provide the most basic services to all residents first.

“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.

Even though Canyon Creek is not slated to receive a new fire station for another five years, Lawson said the city’s actions are an indication that attention is finally being paid to this part of Northwest Austin.

“We do appreciate the fact that the city of Austin and fire department are specifically looking at plans for a new fire station either inside the actual Canyon Creek subdivision or in close proximity because that will only enhance the capability in responding quickly should the need occur,” he said.

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Amy Denney
Amy has been reporting in community journalism since 2007. She worked in the Chicago suburbs for three years before migrating south and joined Community Impact Newspaper in September 2010. Amy has been editor of the Northwest Austin publication since August 2012 and she is also the transportation beat reporter for the Austin area.
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