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Fire Department may change painful hiring process

Tuesday, June 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Officials with the Austin Fire Department may do away with the hiring process that has caused the department no small amount of recent trouble. At the monthly meeting of the city’s Public Safety Commission, department Chief of Staff Harry Evans told commissioners that the change is one of eight funding cuts his department could implement to help cover a nearly $900,000 reduction in budget requests mandated by the City Manager’s office.


The switch would move the department to a lateral hiring process – a method that would solely bring firefighters with previous experience to the city. This would represent a change from the current process, whereby the city offers six months’ worth of training to inexperienced personnel.  


The move would help the department make up $881,000. It comes as Austin Fire officials struggle with a series of missteps made in the interview process for their current crop of would-be hires. After multiple reported problems with temporary workers who filled the role of interviewers for the department, and allegations that interview questions were leaked, the department announced last week that it would bring the City of Austin’s human resources department in to re-interview potential candidates.


Evans testimony was part of the Public Safety Commission’s ongoing vetting of police, fire, and EMS budget proposals for fiscal year 2012. Commissioners also expressed some concern about cuts to the police budget.


Evans told In Fact Daily that the cut and the recent problems in the department’s hiring process were unrelated. “It probably wouldn’t impact this (year’s) list at all,” he said. “This budget reduction proposal is for fiscal year 2012 so it doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s budget or this year’s hires.”


He added that firefighter candidates who have to be re-interviewed would “primarily” be hired in fiscal year 2011.


The body heard about potential cuts from each of Austin’s three public safety organizations, each which were asked to trim their budget figures by the City Manager’s office. In addition to the nearly $900,000 by AFD, the police department and the EMS were asked to shed roughly $4 million and nearly $500,000 respectively for fiscal year 2012.


The commission reserved most of its concern for the reduction in the APD budget. According to police officials, 12 current 911 center positions are unfunded by the FY2012 budget. They were previously covered by grant money. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has already offered the overtime reduction and cadet delay to the City Council (See In Fact Daily, May 25, 2011).


Commissioner Kim Rossmo worried whether reductions in departmental overtime would reduce Austin Police’s ability to cover crime hotspots. He turned to the well-publicized issue of burglaries in the city.


“I remain convinced that the best way to reduce that multi-million dollar impact … on the taxpayers of Austin … is by arresting these individuals,” he said. “We’ve heard Chief Acevedo talk about how one of the initiatives for the Austin Police Department is going to be intelligence-led policing. I don’t see how you can effectively handle either proactive investigations and surveillance for prolific offenders, or do effective intelligence-led policing without having that hotspot intervention.”


Austin Police Chief of Staff David Carter told Rossmo that the department was in a tight spot. “The issue for us really boils down to the fact that, if we need to reduce … we looked across the spectrum over the past several years,” he said. “We’ve really strived to be as effective and efficient with the resources that we are provided.”


Carter told the commission that, over the past 10 years, the department “has had a fairly significant reduction in the amount of non-sworn employees.” He added that it was “faced with a situation now where we want to work through this budget without creating some kind of layoff-type position so we don’t lose some of these critical functions.”


All of the departments’ suggestions still have to earn the approval of the City Council.

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