An emergency medical services initiative that launched last year in response to safety concerns around Rainey Street helped dozens of people and likely prevented several injuries or deaths near Lady Bird Lake.

After that pilot program wrapped up this spring, some leaders are hoping medics can continue to be stationed in the entertainment district to respond to incidents such as medical emergencies and potential drownings.

The overview

Rapid change and growth in the Rainey Street Historic District over the past two decades has come with a variety of local concerns. Both residents and city officials have spent years considering the best way to manage the district's infrastructure, mobility, accessibility and safety needs.

Public safety in particular rose to the forefront in 2023 after multiple drownings in Lady Bird Lake near Rainey Street. Last spring, Austinites—including some of the victims' friends and family members—spent weeks petitioning City Council to respond to the accidental deaths.

Officials went on to call for several changes in the area, such as:
  • New lighting, signage and fencing along the lake and waterfront trail
  • City collaborations with local bar operators
  • Stationing Austin-Travis County EMS medics on the block during nightlife hours
Council member Zo Qadri, who represents downtown and sponsored the Rainey-area updates, also secured city funding for new bar safety measures last summer that have involved several Rainey establishments.

"I thought a response needed to be timely; it needed to be carefully thought out and needed to have teeth on it. We wanted to make sure that what folks were worried about, or what folks had suffered or had a loved one suffer through, wasn’t going to be something that continues to happen in our city," Qadri told Community Impact.

About the program

The city's EMS pilot program kicked off in the Rainey district last June and ran until early April this year.

On a typical night, one paramedic and one EMT staffed a special response unit, or SRU—a golf cart-sized vehicle that's more flexible for medical responses in places like a busy entertainment district.

The EMS team mainly roamed around Rainey Street with a focus on the waterfront near the end of the block and would respond to any medical calls in the area.

Medics logged responses to dozens of incidents over the course of the pilot, including multiple water rescues, according to EMS records. And Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said the program's true impact was likely far greater than the nearly 50 interactions formally reported by EMS.

An EMS spokesperson said the pilot "absolutely" helped prevent injuries or deaths in the area.

"We have previously reported, and acknowledged, three particular incidents where the crew responded and/or located patients heavily under the influence that were located dangerously very near or in the water, as well as helped a group of people find a missing friend," the spokesperson said.

Qadri said he was pleased with the program's outcomes as well, especially after he was contacted by a constituent who said the medical presence prevented them from falling into the lake while intoxicated.

"They had been on Rainey Street, and their story followed so many peoples’ stories where they drank a little bit too much, and were walking around the trailhead and could’ve fallen in but were saved ... by EMS personnel," Qadri said.

Of five accidental drownings reported in 2023, four took place before the EMS pilot program began, while the fifth was on a weekday when no medics were stationed in the area.
This year, a person who died of an undetermined cause was found in the lake about one week after the EMS program formally ended.

Xie said the dedicated EMS presence off Rainey Street proved to be a helpful strategy both for medical staff, and district patrons and those in need.

"Even if it’s not a rescue directly near the water, these people are really intoxicated; they could go to the water," she said. “We need to put responses in these high-call volume areas. There are clearly a lot of people that are downtown, highly intoxicated, that need assistance. And whether or not they eventually call for EMS, it’s way more cost-effective to have two people and an SRU stationed at a high-call volume location than it is to pull an ambulance from the neighborhoods."

Stay tuned

While those involved view the EMS pilot as a success, its future outlook has yet to be determined.

The EMS deployments requested by council were unfunded and staffed by volunteer medics who signed up to work overtime shifts. The program would require dedicated city funding to stay in place full-time—which Qadri said he supports.

"Making sure that we get more money towards this program is paramount," he said.

Austin's proposed fiscal year 2024-25 budget will be presented July 12, and city officials will spend several weeks reviewing and adjusting the plan before its approval in August. Qadri said he'll seek to fund several health and safety initiatives downtown, including:“We’re excited to get this budget process started and really excited about the items that we’re bringing forward. And we want to continue to make sure we do right by our constituents and also those who visit District 9," Qadri said.

Quote of note

“I think [the EMS program is] really important," Xie said. "People who come visit here and maybe don’t know their alcohol limits deserve to be taken care of. We have an alcohol district that serves a lot of alcohol next to a body of water. Maybe that’s partially on Austin to mitigate that concern.”