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Fire, EMS stations lost power during ice storm

Thursday, February 9, 2023 by Jo Clifton

The leaders of the unions representing Austin firefighters and EMS employees both said Wednesday that many of their members had worked through the recent ice storm in stations that had lost power, depriving them of basics like warmth and light.

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, reported that he had surveyed firefighters about the power situation at their stations. He said 23 of 51 stations lost power during the storm. Of those who responded to his survey, he said “one-third didn’t have backup power” at all. One-third had a generator that had not been maintained, while others were not connected to the right circuits. Two-thirds of those who said their stations had generators reported to Nicks that there were problems with the generators.

“Every station has a little bit different problem. I think some of the money (Council Member) Alison Alter allocated” after Winter Storm Uri “fixed the problem” for some stations, Nicks said, but “a good deal of it remains unfixed.” He concluded that he would “write up a report to City Council while our memories are fresh.”

Selena Xie, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Association, said nine stations had lost power, “some in the county, some in the city.” Travis County has a contract with the city to run all affiliated stations. Xie tweeted Tuesday night, “We still have EMS stations that are out of power. Call volumes have been high with people burning all this brush so many fires & injuries. And medics are exhausted from being on shift all week last week so we are extremely short staffed today. Things are going great!”

On Wednesday morning, Xie said the station in Lakeway was still without power. However, later in the evening, a spokesperson for ATCEMS said that one had finally gotten its lights on again. Of the 47 EMS stations in Travis County, six had no backup generator or had a generator that was not functioning during the ice event, she said. That number includes some stations co-located with the fire department.

An email from ATCEMS said, “Every new station when built is equipped with a generator. As older stations are renovated, they are evaluated for feasibility for installation of generator power. Retrofitting existing stations with generator power is a long and costly process requiring ongoing budget commitments to complete the process. As of today, EMS has eight existing stations that are in the process of being retrofitted.

“We did have some stations lose power during last week’s storm and responders were able to co-locate at stations with power. Though the loss of power did not impact response times, we recognize the difficult conditions our first responders work within on a daily basis, and we will continue working to ensure they have the right tools and environment to perform their jobs in the safest and most effective way possible. This remains an ongoing effort by the city and county to ensure stations have the back-up power they need.”

At a press conference Tuesday, a reporter asked City Manager Spencer Cronk why the city had EMS employees sitting in their cars to keep warm on duty because their stations had lost power and they could not even cook a hot meal. This happened even though the after-action report for Winter Storm Uri said those stations should all have backup generators.

Cronk replied, “It’s certainly part of our critical infrastructure and so we would want to make sure they get up and running as quickly as possible.” He declined to comment further, saying the answer to that question would be part of the city’s after-action report. That report is expected at the next Audit and Finance Committee meeting later this month.

An audit of the city’s response to Winter Storm Uri found the city unprepared to deal with the storm’s aftermath and that the city failed to communicate effectively with residents in the days leading up to the storm.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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