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Ott backs down from plan to cut fire truck personnel

Friday, March 6, 2009 by Austin Monitor

With less-than-solid support from the City Council for his proposed cuts to staffing on fire trucks, City Manager Marc Ott backed down Thursday —at least temporarily—from a plan to use a “flexible staffing model” for some fire trucks. He also set a definite date, Sept. 14, 2009, for the beginning of the new Austin Police Department cadet class.


Council Members Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell and Laura Morrison had been particularly critical of the plan to reduce the numbers of firefighters on certain trucks. The Fire Department has already burned through 68 percent of its overtime pay for the current fiscal year, or $3.1 million, making it even tougher to balance the budget during these hard economic times.


Ott had proposed reducing overtime by lowering the number of firefighters on each truck. That inspired Stephen Truesdell, president of the Austin Firefighters Association to hold a press conference outside City Hall to voice the union’s concerns. He said, “Last week, the City Manager and the Fire Chief proposed cutting staffing on fire trucks to address a budget gap . . . We have been working since 1992 to achieve and maintain four-firefighter staffing on each apparatus. It is a nationally-recognized minimum standard.


“We were very surprised to hear that one of the first things being proposed as a significant cut in the Fire Department was staffing,” he continued. “We feel like there are many other opportunities and ways to save this money with the Austin Fire Department and also by taking a look at the broader city budget.” He mentioned “opportunities to re-deploy firefighters that currently work in a support role.”


On Thursday morning, Ott wrote a memo to Mayor and Council announcing that he would postpone the Fire Department changes. Later in the morning, Ott said that despite the need to conserve funds, “we remain committed to four-person staffing as a goal, a process that began back in 2002. It is important to note that we have not completely implemented four-person staffing. We still have five companies that run under three-person structure and we do that without jeopardizing the safety of our firefighters. The current proposal would only affect one to three additional units out of any given shift.”


Martinez, a former president of the firefighters union, thanked Ott for holding off on the staffing cuts. He said, “This is in no way, shape or form holding the Fire Department harmless from the budget crisis we face.” He said, “I believe we didn’t work hard enough,” to come up with other ways to reduce Fire Department spending, adding that he had found a number of cuts in his perusal of the budget that would make up for the $200,000 needed to immediately close the gap.

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