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Austin to take over some county firefighting

Monday, February 27, 2017 by Jo Clifton

On Feb. 16, City Council unanimously approved negotiation of a contract with Travis County Emergency Services District 4 to transfer firefighting duties to Austin firefighters within the ESD’s area in eastern Travis County.

The parties will have to come back to Council for final approval of a contract that will include district payments to the city, consolidation of the majority of ESD 4’s firefighters into the Austin Fire Department and directions on how to dispose of the district’s property.

Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, questioned Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr about whether the department really needs its firefighters to meet the current physical standards.

The major sticking point in bringing veterans from ESD 4 into AFD is a requirement that firefighters be able to run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes or less.

Kerr and Chief of Staff Tom Dodds emphasized that firefighters need to be physically fit enough to run that distance quickly in order to fight wildland fires, which have become increasingly important in Travis County.

Kerr stated that the merger “is only possible because of our collective bargaining agreement” with the firefighters union “and the ESD merger template. The collective bargaining agreement is the only reason that these firefighters will be able to join AFD without competing on the written and oral assessments.

“And I want to remind you that there are thousands of individuals, including firefighters from other jurisdictions, that compete in those oral and written assessments and are not successful and are not able to become Austin firefighters,” Kerr said.

Garza has not been a member of the fire department for several years, having become an attorney and working in the Texas Attorney General’s office after serving as a firefighter. She did not remember the 1.5 mile run requirement. Dodds told her that the ESD 4 group would be the fourth group of cadets required to pass that test.

Dodds insisted that more firefighters were injured on the job before the run requirement was instituted.

Garza asked Chief David Bailey of ESD 4 if he was concerned that some of his firefighters who have committed themselves to the district could find their jobs eliminated because of the 1.5 mile run.

Bailey said, “The commissioners (of ESD 4) and I have dealt with that since day one. Knowing that there are many hoops to get into the Austin Fire Department that one must jump through. And the statistical likelihood somebody is going to have something that trips them up or disqualifies them from that. That’s been a very real probability from day one. We work hard to lessen that impact.”

Drew Garcia, president of the ESD 4 Firefighters Association, told Council that the AFD could use a different standard that would include wearing a 45-pound pack over a distance of 3 miles. According to Garcia, the 1.5 mile run would eliminate four individuals that might add diversity to AFD – one African-American, two Hispanics and a person of Middle Eastern heritage.

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, argued that the stakeholder group formed to bring a recommendation to Council last year agreed on almost everything that Chief Kerr was now recommending. The one sticking point, he said, was that the entry standards were too stringent and would result in three minority firefighters not joining AFD.

Garza made the motion to approve negotiation only and Council Member Leslie Pool seconded the motion. Pool also said she was concerned about the ESD firefighters.

Pool said she wanted “to make sure that we are not doing violence to our negotiated agreement … and make sure there is fairness and equity in the application.”

Garza pointedly asked whether Council could “strike certain portions of the agreement” once it has been negotiated and brought back to Council. “For example, if at that time there is still a 1.5 mile requirement and there’s still some other things that are a concern, is that within Council’s ability to strike those before we approve?”

City Attorney Anne Morgan responded, “Council member, let me take a look at that closely because those are things that are really within the purview of the fire chief, how she actually runs that department. And your job, of course, is at a policy level. Let me make sure I can help you understand where that line is in this particular item.”

Garza said, “These standards have been implemented in the past two years, and I would argue that all the Austin firefighters who have come in before those three years are great firefighters and capable of doing every single job that’s required of them.” She added that although new cadets have to pass the 1.5 mile test, “I still don’t have the scientific evidence or any kind of scientific proof that shows how that makes one a better firefighter.”

She said she wanted to make sure that “we are not pushing standards for the sake of pushing them.” Garza concluded by saying she would still like to receive some “real evidence” to show why this particular standard should be applied to the ESD 4 firefighters.

Council then put that matter aside to listen to citizens communications. When Mayor Steve Adler called for a vote a couple of hours later, Morgan did not comment and there was no discussion of the training issue before the unanimous vote to approve.

Photo by J.Köster (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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