Thursday, December 20, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

2019: AFD’s new chief prioritizes communication

After just over five months with an interim chief, the Austin Fire Department finally has a permanent leader. As the year winds down, Joel Baker assumes his role as fire chief at the department amid an environment of transition and growth. With five new fire stations coming online to expand coverage to a growing city, an oft-strained relationship between AFD brass and the Austin Firefighters Association, ongoing negotiations for emergency coverage and a continued need for firefighters, Chief Baker steps in with a practical mindset that only years of experience can bring.

To bring the Austin Monitor up to speed on his plans for 2019, Chief Baker sat down with us after only four days in office.

“I’m looking at more opportunity in 2019 than challenges,” he told the Monitor. His laundry list of tasks for the new year is already ironed out, but he explained that in order for things to pan out, consistent communication is going to be key. “I don’t need to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he said. “If I say I’m going to do something, I need to do it. If I don’t do it, I need to give a reason.”

His key priorities, called the “Doctrine,” include improving internal human resources, training within the departments, emergency response, department equipment and technology, and public education.

For Baker, every decision must be made in the context of the city at large. “Every decision we make in the AFD, the citizens will benefit first,” he said.

To keep his finger on the pulse of the city’s needs, Baker plans to continue his predecessor Rhoda Mae Kerr’s commitment to active participation in the community. He is particularly interested in hiring and mentoring young firefighters so that when the time comes, “there will be somebody in this organization ready to take my spot.”

Baker recognizes that there is an ongoing need for recruitment from diverse backgrounds. However, he explained that he is going to have to look outside of the city limits to find eligible potential firefighters. “The diverse workforce is there. We just got to go and get them,” he said. He plans to start recruitment immediately since the new application period opens on Feb. 4.

As the city of Austin continues to expand there will be a need not only for more fire personnel but for those who want to make the fire service their long-term career. Part of the plan to increase retention at AFD involves Baker cultivating a working relationship with AFA, which, in the past, has had some strained interactions with the department. “We’ve both come to the table for a feast … but the more you take away from the table, the less you have to offer as well. But right now we have a very good working relationship and a very good understanding,” Baker explained. AFA President Bob Nicks has previously expressed optimism about their working relationship in the media.

A solid understanding of the city, the citizens, the firefighters, and the union is the framework from which Baker intends to lead the organization. While his long-range goals are admirable, in the short term Baker said that his goal is quite simple: “I have to work on getting a better understanding of the culture of the city and the department.” He plans to spend a good portion of the next few months visiting fire stations, talking to the community and learning his way around Austin’s busy streets.

As for what he expects 2019 to bring in terms of challenges, he said, “I don’t know what’s going to be difficult until it shows up and smacks me in the face.”

Photo by Chris Wilkinson, Austin Fire Department.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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

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