Thursday, May 26, 2016 by Jack Craver

City considers providing fire service to Travis County ESD4

After years of city annexations, Travis County Emergency Services District 4 (ESD4) should no longer have its own fire department, ESD4 Fire Chief David Bailey told the City Council Public Safety Committee on Monday.

When it was founded as Travis County Rural Fire Protection District #4 in 1985, the taxing district covered a large swath of the county and eventually grew to include eight fire stations. However, the city of Austin’s growth has not only made the district smaller, it has also chopped up the district into six islands of land surrounded by city territory.

The ESD4 fire department has since shrunk to three stations, staffed by 30 firefighters. As a result, the distances between the various parts of the district are too great to guarantee the service its residents deserve, said Bailey.

“It leads to inferior service. There’s really no way to define it otherwise,” he told the committee. “It’s a more effective use of my dollars to contract with the city of Austin.”

City leaders are exploring the idea of absorbing the ESD4 fire department into Austin’s own. The committee voted unanimously Monday to have both fire departments work together on a proposal that will outline how the consolidation would go forward. Committee members asked that the proposal be made available to Council by mid-July, as it begins working on the budget.

In the event of a consolidation, the ESD4 would not cease to exist as a taxing entity, but it would pay the city for fire service.

Such a scenario would benefit the residents of the 7,000 addresses within the boundaries of the district as well as the Austin Fire Department, argued Bailey. Why should city leaders ponder spending roughly $6 million to build a new fire station when they could take over the existing three fire stations controlled by ESD4 “for free,” he asked.

The Austin Fire Department does not oppose the proposed merger, but Department Chief of Staff Tom Dodds cautioned that it may require some financial wrangling. As per the current collective bargaining agreement with the Austin Firefighters Association, the department would have to spend $1.8 million to train the firefighters from ESD4, he estimated, and the newcomers would also be entitled to pay raises that the tax revenue from the district would fall short of covering by an estimated $1.5 million a year.

None of the committee members expressed hostility to the deal, but Council Member Ora Houston said that she wanted to know more about how it would affect the city’s ongoing efforts to diversify the fire department.

A number of speakers, including Andrew Garcia, the head of the ESD4 firefighters union, responded to Houston’s concerns by noting the diversity of the district’s force, whose majority is Latino.

According to figures Houston read from the dais, Austin’s current force is 78 percent Anglo, 16 percent Latino and 4.4 percent African-American.

That suggests that bringing the ESD4 members into the department would help its dramatic underrepresentation of Latinos, who as of the 2010 census made up 35 percent of Austin’s population. But it would not do much to increase representation in the force of African-Americans, whose share of the city’s population stood at 8 percent during the census.

Darren Hyson, the corresponding secretary of the Austin African-American Firefighters Association, said his group opposed the deal, believing it would have a “low impact” on diversity. At one time, he said, when ESD4 had nine black firefighters, the group had backed the plan. Today, however, the ESD4 force includes only two black members.

Hyson also emphasized that his group has sought, unsuccessfully, to be granted an official seat at the bargaining table in contract negotiations with the city.

In 2014, Council approved a settlement with the Department of Justice over hiring practices that the DOJ had said led to underrepresentation of Hispanics and African-Americans in the fire department. The city is still operating under the four-year consent decree from that settlement, in which the city committed to certain measures to boost diversity.

In her resolution urging discussion between all parties, Council Member Leslie Pool, who earlier in the meeting said she wanted to ensure that any deal would have the support of “our union brothers and sisters,” specified that the African-American Firefighters Association be included.

Photo by Chrisklee18Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8299589

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin African-American Firefighters Association: The local chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, this group works with the city to promote a diverse firefighter workforce.

Austin City Council Public Safety Committee: A City Council committee that reviews safety issues, including code enforcement, disaster preparedness and criminal justice.

Austin Fire Department: firefighters who serve residents inside Austin city limits.

Austin Firefighters Association: The Austin firefighters union.

Emergency Service Districts: A political subdivision that provides fire protection and/or emergency medical services.

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