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Firefighters’ leader says department needs more funds

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 by Jo Clifton

When City Manager Spencer Cronk presented the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget to City Council last week, he noted that the new Loop 360 fire/EMS station would be opening in the coming fiscal year. According to the manager’s budget document, the new station would open in July 2022 and cost taxpayers $1.5 million for partial year funding.

But now it seems unlikely that the station will be completed before the end of 2022, which will put its initial funding in the FY 2022-23 budget. According to a memo from Public Works Director Richard Mendoza, the project is in design development, with construction slated to start this October. However, Mendoza wrote, “Due to challenges with site topography and utilities we are estimating a 15-month construction timeline.”

In 2018, the city manager directed his staff to develop a plan to build and staff five permanent fire/EMS stations over a six-year timeline in the locations where they were most needed. Those included the Del Valle/Moore’s Crossing station, which has been completed; the Travis Country station, which is substantially complete, according to Mendoza; the Goodnight Ranch station, which is “on schedule” with preliminary engineering expected to start this October; and the Canyon Creek/620 station, which will be shared with the Austin Police Department. According to Mendoza, design of this facility has started.

At the same time that progress on the Loop 360 station has slowed, Austin firefighters are looking for funding for more immediate needs. According to Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, the budget should include some one-time items, including a new ladder truck. The department has not gotten a new ladder truck since 1995 and some structure fires absolutely require the ladder. He said firefighters expected one to show up in the 2019 budget, but it didn’t. They expected it again in 2020, but it wasn’t there.

But that’s not all. “We have a major wildfire training going on that hasn’t been funded at proper levels,” Nicks said. The class takes 16 hours and 1,200 people are expected to take part. Next week, 24 local firefighters will be trained in how to teach the class, which was developed by Austin, Cal Fire and Colorado Springs firefighters. “We’ll be the first department to go through the entire program,” he said, adding that the training will also be available for firefighters with local emergency services districts.

“It’s a very lean budget,” Nicks said, adding, “I don’t want to be absolutely negative” about it. “The fact that they’re funding these stations is very important.” But there are still a number of one-time items that firefighters really need. That includes body armor, because even though the city has provided it for police and EMS, firefighters still don’t have any, despite the fact that they are sometimes at risk of violence while answering calls.

In addition, Nicks said fire stations need to be “hardened,” in order to deal better with disasters like Winter Storm Uri.

Finally, the department needs to add 19 more construction inspectors in order to keep up with new construction. “The fire department is becoming more and more of a pinch point” for completing construction, Nicks said, “and we’re one of the hottest real estate markets in the world. It’s a challenge for builders.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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