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AFD, union still at odds over interlocal agreement

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, and Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker are locked in a battle over whether the city should sign on to a new mutual aid agreement with emergency services districts in both Travis and Williamson counties and several small cities. While Baker appears to have the winning hand, he says he has worked hard to compromise with the union, giving it nearly everything it was seeking.

The city currently has what is called an auto aid agreement with Travis County, and Austin firefighters say it should continue as is. Baker and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, whose district covers the part of Austin within Williamson County, are particularly anxious to move forward with the agreement, which includes the two counties as well as Leander, Cedar Park, Round Rock and Georgetown. In all, 19 different agencies will be parties to the agreement.

Nicks is most concerned that the parties to the agreement can change the agreement by a three-fourths vote. That means even though Austin will be spending the most money, the city has only one vote out of 19 and the other agencies could decide to override procedures put in place within the Austin Fire Department. In particular, Nicks is concerned that there is not a single standard operating system for all the involved fire departments.

Last month, Mayor Steve Adler promised to work on the agreement to see if he could bring the two sides closer together. Flannigan was not happy when Council postponed consideration of the agreement, even though the mayor assured him that they would move forward on Dec. 5.

On Tuesday, Adler presented an amendment to the item related to the auto aid agreement directing the city manager to give Council 45 days notice before the city agrees to any changes to certain sections of the final draft of the operational guidelines or operating systems proposed and agreed to by all the parties.

At the Nov. 14 Council meeting, Flannigan said, “I’m really concerned about postponement. We already have an existing auto aid agreement with Travis County ESDs, but we do not with Williamson County.” He complained that there has been a delay in firefighter response to his part of the city, with the longest response times at Avery Ranch.

During that meeting, Baker said without the emergency services districts, the estimated response time to certain outlying areas of the city was 12 to 15 minutes, “so having the ESDs and auto aid is a win-win for the city of Austin as well as other residents. There are some areas the city of Austin and fire departments cannot get to within eight minutes,” which is the standard the department strives for.

“However, we can make it to some ESD partner areas within eight minutes or quicker and they can make it to our area,” he continued. “At the end of the day your citizens do not care what patch (from what department) or what fire trucks show up at their home. If they are having a heart attack when those brain cells start to die within six minutes and we cannot reverse them, they want someone there, regardless of the patch, who can do CPR, shock their heart back to life, start an IV line so they can get out of the hospital back to their family.

“If a fire breaks out in their area, it doesn’t make a difference what patch or logo shows up on that fire truck, as long as someone can get there and put those flames out and save that child in the back of the bedroom at 2 a.m.” Baker concluded.

Firefighters do not dispute Baker’s assertions about faster service being preferable. And Nicks agrees that there is an urgent need to find a solution for Austinites who live in Williamson County “who are suffering from severe emergency response time deficiencies,” as he said in an email to the mayor and Council on Tuesday.

But the union chief is worried that the auto aid agreement could lead to Austin firefighters having to work with technology that is less advanced than Austin’s. He also notes that the city will be doing an equity study starting next month and that should be completed by mid-2020. Austin should wait until that study is completed, he said.

The Public Safety Commission, led by Commissioner Rebecca Webber, adopted a resolution at Monday night’s meeting urging City Council to continue to operate under the current agreement with Travis County and not to sign the expanded agreement until AFD has completed its equity and optimization studies. The Public Safety Commission should have had an opportunity to weigh in on the matter sooner, and a memo attached to this Thursday’s Council agenda notes that previous agendas had erroneously stated that the commission had considered the agreement.

Webber also sent a memo to at least one Council member, which she shared with Nicks. Nicks shared the memo with the Austin Monitor, along with a text from Webber stating that she did not make up her mind about the auto aid agreement until after she heard AFD’s presentation Monday night.

Webber said, “The proposed interlocal will not ameliorate the problems for WilCo Austinites. In my opinion, all the focus on corralling fractious ESD chiefs for this new interlocal has distracted from solving the immediate problems faced in North Austin and that is where the focus should be right now. In the meantime, I highly recommend you do not pass the interlocal until after you can answer basic questions regarding what we spend on auto aid and what we get in return.” She said AFD’s presentation to the commission was “an embarrassment because this is the 11th hour and they were not prepared to answer the most basic and frequently asked questions.”

But Baker told the Monitor, “The bottom line is we have compromised and compromised. So should we continue to compromise on the compromises? We have met with labor, Bob Nicks. They voiced their concerns …. We agreed to four of the five items they asked for. The fifth item was the interlocal agreement changes. I don’t agree with that. I shouldn’t have to keep coming to Council on operational procedures in our department. However, since we couldn’t agree and there was a recommendation from the mayor” about the 45 days notice, “I said OK.”

Photo by J.Köster [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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