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Committee restarts discussion of fire and EMS merger

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Members of the Public Safety Committee heard testimony Monday on the idea of merging the Austin Fire Department with Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services, but city staff and organization heads reiterated time and again that anything official is a long way off.

Before a union of the two emergency bodies can even be considered, Austin/Travis County EMS Association President Tony Marquardt said, issues within his department need fixing.

“There are core issues going on with EMS that goes back to some of the staffing deficiencies and some of the real issues that are driving our separations and our challenges,” he said. “I think that merely looking to the horizon for the solution to those matters is premature.”

EMS has told Public Safety commissioners in recent meetings that the department is having trouble retaining staff and filling vacancies.

Numerous cities across the nation have gone ahead with merging their fire and EMS departments, including New York City and Washington, D.C. Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said talks of a merger in Austin are not new.

Nicks wrote in a February 2013 letter to Marquardt that the Fire Department and EMS often work in tandem and that making a union official would yield numerous benefits.

“We believe a combined system would greatly benefit the citizens we serve by reducing administrative costs,” he wrote. “Further, a consolidated workforce would greatly benefit the members of both organizations through improved benefits and pension programs, reduction in workspace burnout and a shared command structure.”

But in the same breath, Nicks told committee members that bridging the two entities calls for serious caution.

“The most important thing in a merger is the employees and the people involved, because they are the ones really providing a great service, and they’re not taken into consideration very thoughtfully,” Nicks said. “(The) No. 1 thing is we got to do this thing thoughtfully, we can’t be forced — and I don’t think the main thing needs to be to save money. I think that’ll be a likely product. The main thing needs to be how do we take two really well-functioning organizations and make them even better.”

These warnings seemed especially pertinent as Nicks described the reaction he received after the City Council committee posted its Monday agenda, which included the item to discuss a possible Fire and EMS merger.

“I don’t think I received more calls on any resolutions than this one,” he told committee members.

In a post on the City Council Message Board, Council Member Leslie Pool had asked committee members to table the item, writing that the heads of both Fire and EMS felt blindsided by the item’s placement on the committee’s agenda.

EMS Director Ernie Rodriguez echoed this thought. “Both the EMS and Fire departments were surprised to see this agenda item,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter to staff. “Neither department was consulted on the matter. Neither department has been studying a merger and neither has any staff briefing to deliver on the topic.” Rodriguez went on to defend the strength of the departments as they stand — separate from one another.

At the end of the committee meeting, Council Member Don Zimmerman floated the idea of creating a subcommittee or task force to consider a merger, but Council members took no action on the item.

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