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Public safety agencies review wildfire response, ponder preparedness

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Across the hall from the budget negotiations on Monday, representatives from the city’s Police, Fire and EMS departments gave their accounts of the wildfires last week to the Public Safety Commission.


Though all of the departments commended their staff’s response to the crisis, they also all acknowledged that more funding would be helpful in fighting future wildfires in Austin that many see as inevitable.


“We’ve really got a great opportunity here. We’ve seen the potential of what can happen in wildland fire. We haven’t seen the big one yet in Austin. If you can imagine the fire in Bastrop being in Northwest Austin, the type of loss we’d have would be great. So we’re kind of lucky. We got a taste of how bad it could get, and the potential, and now we need to make sure we take action to mitigate it,” said Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks.


“The training programs are important, mitigating fuel is very important, and then I’m very disappointed that we didn’t make any progress towards four-person staffing this cycle. With all that’s going on, I thought that might be something that was higher priority for Council,” said Nicks.


Fire Chief Rhoda Kerr told the commission that they would continue to fully staff ladder trucks and brush trucks through the end of the week, and that they would reevaluate at that point.


She also expressed disappointment that recent events did not sway Council enough to fund staffing the ladder trucks.


“As we all know, the budget hearings were going on next door in Council Chambers, and we were not authorized the funding to increase the staffing on those ladder trucks…” said Kerr. “Next year is another year, and we are hoping to be able to change that.”


Austin Police Department also lent a hand to the nearby fires, aiding in evacuations and relieving taxed local departments. They also responded to a request for air reconnaissance, despite limited resources.


APD currently has three aircraft, a ten-year old helicopter, which was undergoing scheduled maintenance to prepare for Sept. 11, a 42-year old military helicopter and a single engine fixed-wing plane.


Austin Police Department Chief of Staff David Carter noted that the available two aircraft were used for reconnaissance, but a maintenance question quickly grounded the helicopter for a day, leaving only the plane to aid in competing missions in both Bastrop and Travis county.


Police Chief Art Acevedo has long stressed the need for more air resources in central Austin.


“If your emergency preparedness involves relying on the state or the federal government, you’ve already prepared to fail. I’ve said that time and time again,” said Acevedo. “You have to have stopgap capabilities to hold a fire at bay, to hold a riot at bay, whatever the challenges. We’re not there as a city, in terms of fire capabilities.”


“It really scares me coming from an area where fires and firestorms were a way of life. When you look around this area, it is scary. The thought that if we had the right conditions we’re going to see some very tragic events unfold,” said Acevedo.


He was not alone in his predictions.


“I think in the way of the fires that we just had, we all knew, that at some point it was coming. It didn’t happen as bad in the city limits of Austin. But we know those things are coming. And when we sit back and say we want to cut back because now we’re okay, you can’t get those resources at the drop of a dime,” said Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent.


“This is just a stark reminder of the preparedness that we have to have. Not just toeing the line now, because we don’t know what’s coming. We do know what’s coming, we just don’t know when and how it’s going to manifest itself,” said Vincent


In the coming weeks, AFD will conduct a Post-Incident Review that further examines the response to the fires, and how it was handled. The Public Safety Commission has asked for numbers to accompany those reports so that they might take them to the community and City Council to discuss what additional resources might be needed.


Additionally, Chief Kerr has taken steps to form a task force across city departments so that the city, as a whole, can look at wildfire prevention to prepare for a threat that seems not to be going anywhere anytime soon.

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