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Martinez joins chorus criticizing fire chief over absence during fires

Thursday, September 8, 2011 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter and union leader, joined the chorus of criticism of Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr Wednesday, saying she should have returned early from her vacation to lead her department during the devastating Labor Day weekend fires.


“I don’t think it changed our ability to help citizens but . . . when you’re in a leadership position you have to lead—and that does mean sacrifice sometimes,” he said. “You don’t get to be with your friends and family as much as you’d want to and I think that was certainly the case for everyone this weekend….The Mayor was extremely busy all weekend…I stayed on the phone all day Sunday and Monday trying to help folks. That’s what we signed up for. I wished she’d been in town. I don’t think it hampered operations—but I do think its going to look bad for her.”


Martinez said many of the firefighters’ families were upset.


“I’ve actually heard from the spouses of firefighters,” he said. “It’s very hurtful to them to find out that their husband or wife was working all weekend and she was not in town. So I think it’s going to be difficult (her relationship with firefighters) but also with the community.”


Other Council members also criticized Kerr privately but declined to go on the record with negative comments.


Kerr was on vacation in Colorado when wildfires broke out in communities around Austin including a fire that has consumed more than 550 homes and acres so far in Bastrop. . Union chief Bob Nicks was quoted in yesterday’s American Statesman. “It would be better if the chief was here to at least provide guidance to the citizens,” he said.


Council Member Bill Spelman defended Kerr, saying, ”If she’d been here it would have been inappropriate for her to take charge or assign any of her people to take charge,” since the fires were outside her jurisdiction. “The primary responsibility of the chief as I understand it was to authorize interlocal agreements to kick in to send over firefighters as we could help in Bastrop and Steiner Ranch and so on. She did not need to be on the scene to do that.”


However, he added, “A whole lot of firefighters did work a lot of hours and it’s always good to see the boss. But there wasn’t that much for her to do unless she was willing to get on the line and take up a hose, and barring that I’m not sure it would have accomplished a whole lot for her to fly back from Colorado just to be here.”


Nicks told In Fact Daily yesterday, “It certainly wasn’t ideal, when you have a 100-year fire, to stay out of town at a golf tournament.”


When asked if he thought there would be action taken, he responded, “The City Manager needs to look at the fire chief’s performance, and the accumulation of mistakes, including this last one, and see what he’s going to do.”


Yesterday, Kerr told In Fact Daily there were three important factors in her decision. “I was in contact from Sunday afternoon on, and I was home last night. I was in Colorado, it wasn’t like it was just around the corner…It probably would have taken me a day to get from where I was to Austin.”


She added, “I have good staff. If I can’t leave things in their hands, I’m not a good fire chief,” noting that the fires were not inside the city.

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