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Fire Department says it needs more fire stations

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 by Jack Craver

The Public Safety Commission unanimously recommended a resolution Monday that would require the city manager to submit an annual report to City Council identifying areas of the city most in need of fire stations.

If approved by Council, staff will develop a comprehensive plan to be presented to Council in the next budget cycle for building fire stations in five top priority areas, based on a variety of data related to response times and vulnerability to fire. The plan would outline different funding mechanisms, including private-public partnerships, a model that has not been used before for fire stations.

The resolution, which was crafted and supported by both the Fire Department and the firefighters union, will now move on to Council.

Urging the commission to endorse the resolution, Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said that the city needs to understand and confront the impact that rapid population growth in recent years has had on the ability of the department to respond quickly to emergencies.

“We need to be honest with (citizens) when we’re doing well, and most importantly we need to be honest with them when we could be doing better,” he said.

Nicks also said the city needed to find a quicker and more reliable way to fund construction of fire stations.

“Relying on (general obligation) bonds has been a failed system,” he said.

The resolution also calls for the city manager to “explore the feasibility of utilizing a GPS emergency vehicle preemption system,” which prompts traffic signals to switch in anticipation of an approaching fire engine.

Assistant Fire Chief Tom Dodds emphasized that the resolution wouldn’t commit the city to any particular action but that it would at least allow Council access to better data to address the state of the department.

The current situation, explained Nicks, is that in many areas of the city, the Fire Department does not meet its stated goal of responding to emergencies within eight minutes. The eight-minute standard, he explained, was not particularly stringent compared to other cities.

He pointed out, for instance, that in 1986, Council approved a resolution that set the standard travel time at three minutes. The travel time is only one part of the overall response time, but currently the travel time is closer to four minutes, he said.

Commissioner Michael Levy noted that in some cities, fire stations are built into buildings otherwise used for private purposes, including high-rise apartment complexes. He suggested that the city, much in the way that it often demands that developers finance new infrastructure or provide parkland in exchange for increased entitlements, could use the development process to get new fire stations.

Levy also floated the idea of moving or eliminating certain stations, saying that the location of some stations is based on a layout of the city dating back to when the fire department still operated with horse-drawn carriages, but that a neighborhood rarely likes to forfeit the fire station in its area.

“I think we have to keep in mind that there are stations that are placed for political reasons – not the analysis that y’all would make,” he said.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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