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Council OKs amended emergency mutual aid pact

Friday, December 6, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Council gave final approval Thursday to a mutual automatic aid agreement designed to ensure that 19 fire and rescue departments throughout Travis and Williamson counties will assist each other in far-flung parts of Austin and the included counties.

The city has had such an agreement with Travis County emergency services districts for many years, but has not had an agreement with Williamson County. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan has been particularly anxious to finalize the agreement in the hopes his constituents would get faster service.

The Austin Firefighters Association, led by its president, Bob Nicks, had pushed for an amendment to the agreement that would allow the participating departments to prevent changes to the agreement if their governing bodies did not approve. That put Nicks in direct conflict with Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker, who asked Council to approve the interlocal agreement as written. That agreement provided that there could be changes to rules governing operations of the fire departments if 75 percent of those who signed on to the agreement wanted that change.

Nicks disagreed with that part of the pact, as did the Public Safety Commission and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter. Garza proposed an amendment stating that written notice of changes to certain sections of the agreement must be provided to the governing authorities of the departments 45 days prior to those changes taking effect. In the case of Austin, that would mean notifying City Council. In the event of an objection from one of the departments, those changes would not occur.

Council approved Garza’s amendment on a vote of 7-4, with Council members Flannigan, Alison Alter, Paige Ellis and Mayor Steve Adler dissenting. However, the overall agreement, with amendments offered by Flannigan and Alter, won unanimous approval.

In response to questions, Assistant City Attorney Cary Grace told Council they would have to rely on each of the chiefs to decide whether to go back to their governing bodies to seek reauthorization of the interlocal agreement as a result of Garza’s amendment.

Baker was not pleased with the change. After the vote he led a number of suburban chiefs into a room off the City Hall atrium where they apparently quizzed Grace about the situation. A reporter looking in the window of that room was waved off.

However, when they came out, Aaron Woolverton, Austin’s assistant chief of emergency operations, told the Austin Monitor, “We’ve got to amend the (interlocal agreement) to include the language the Council just approved. … They’ll have to take it back to their governing boards and seek approval to negotiate and execute the new ILA and there is some discussion with them about what that will all mean for them, whether or not they’ll be a part of the auto aid agreement. We think they all will be. We’re hopeful that even the standouts will come on board,” he said, referring to the Sam Bass and Jollyville fire departments in Williamson County.

Flannigan said those two departments are the most critical for his constituents. “So I have direction here about directing the manager to figure out other solutions” to address District 6’s concerns.

Nicks had also complained that Austin was putting in the most resources and that the city should wait until an equity study is completed sometime in 2020 before moving ahead with the auto aid agreement.

Alter presented an additional direction to City Manager Spencer Cronk, directing him to report to the Public Safety Commission every 12 months, “including reports on the balance of resources, incidents and units relative to each participating department.” She added, “This allows us over time to have some clear mechanisms for understanding if there are imbalances or not.”

Alter said she did not expect the workload in the resources to be equal in each jurisdiction. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. If there are some severe imbalances it would allow Austin and other parties to be able to see that and make adjustments to the resources appropriately.”

In addition to the Williamson County holdouts, another chief who has taken a wait-and-see attitude about the new agreement is Ken Bailey, who leads Travis County Emergency Services District 11 in the southeast part of the county. Bailey explained Thursday that Williamson County uses what is called a “blue card” system that is not used in Austin and Travis County. He said the agreement would require all of his firefighters to have 50 hours of training for a system they won’t be using. Bailey said he thought that was “silly,” but his major concern is the creation of a universal regional fire response operating guideline.

Adler had proposed a direction to the city manager to report to Council on efforts to create a universal regional fire response guideline. He did not bring up the matter during the discussion after Council adopted Garza’s amendment, but it seems likely that Cronk will work on that problem without specific written direction.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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