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Firefighters may sue city over use of Westlake ESD
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 by Austin Monitor
The Austin Firefighters Association plans to file a lawsuit this morning in an attempt to block the City of Austin from renewing an agreement with the Westlake Fire Department.
AFD officials say the agreement with Emergency Services District 9 is necessary to provide fire protection to neighborhoods around Westlake and to newly annexed areas where Westlake Fire Department can respond more quickly than firefighters from Austin. However, the union representing Austin firefighters wants that territory protected by AFD employees.
“They feel the City of Austin should be covered by civil-service firefighters, and most of the surrounding Emergency Service Districts are not civil-service,” said Acting Fire Chief Jim Evans. “Typically, you have to have a voter referendum to become a civil-service city, and a lot of these surrounding jurisdictions just haven’t reached that tipping point yet.”
Chief Evans said that in crafting the agreement with Westlake Fire Department—known as Travis County ESD 9—the city’s primary concern had been maintaining acceptable response times at a reasonable cost. “The purpose of these arrangements are that we leverage one another’s closest-due unit so that we can get that quick response time, then we always back-fill behind them with the normal complement of resources depending on the type of incident,” he said.
The most recent agreement with Westlake was signed in 2006, but the city has had similar agreements with several surrounding communities for more than 20 years.
However, earlier this year, the City Manager’s office warned Westlake Fire Department officials that union leaders had raised a new concern over allowing non-AFD firefighters to handle calls within Austin. “Should organized labor attempt some legal action against the City of Austin, the City feels that its first responder automatic aid agreements fully comply with the law,” Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald wrote to Westlake Fire Chief Gary Warren. Acting Chief Evans reiterated that position in a memo to the Council last week, telling them that “both the City’s legal staff and outside counsel have reviewed this issue and come to the conclusion that expanding the automatic aid agreement with ESD 9 is within the law.”
The Austin firefighters argue that allowing Emergency Service Districts to cover territory in Austin as the officially-designated primary responders would amount to an unauthorized outsourcing of civil-service jobs. “The automatic aid agreements are not unique to Austin,” Chief Evans pointed out in his memo to the Council. “Throughout the state, municipalities contract with each other to provide fire protection services.”
The city’s legal staff plans to brief the Council in executive session Thursday.
Council Member Lee Leffingwell, a strong union supporter, told In Fact Daily, “As a non-lawyer, it sounds to me like a good question: if the citizens of Austin voted to make the firefighters civil service back in the 1940’s…and to have people doing firefighting work in the City of Austin that are not civil service…it seems like it might be contrary to that. But I would like to see what the lawyers say. I think it’s appropriate to get a thorough briefing and then we’ll go from there.”
Officials with the Austin Firefighters Association plan to be in court at 2:30pm today for a hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from entering the interlocal agreement with ESD 9.
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