At Your Service

Suburbanites Doubt the City's 411 on 911

illustration byDoug Potter

Tracy Nelson has been been doing a bit of research with her stopwatch lately. And she doesn't like what she's finding. A resident of the Parke, a development near Lake Travis at the corner of RR 2222 and 620, Nelson is worried about emergency services. She is concerned that the city won't be able to respond to fire and emergency calls as quickly as her current provider, the Volente Volunteer Fire Department.

Nelson's area is one of many developments and Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) that the City of Austin is planning to annex. In all, the targeted areas comprise 22 square miles. And while many of the people who have been speaking at the recent annexation hearings talk about taxes, due process, and equal representation, police and emergency services may be the hottest topic of debate.

Nelson has driven the route from Fire Station 31, near the intersection of Loop 360 and RR 2222, to her home several times. By her calculation, it will take 11 minutes for fire trucks from that station to reach her area. The VVFD, on the other hand, claims it can respond to fire calls in 6.6 minutes.

Nelson says the emergency services issue shows that the city hasn't done adequate planning. "This is an example of how they are rushing forward with this annexation," she said. "There are a lot of arguments that say why we should be annexed, including taxes and equity. None of us have said we don't want to be part of the City of Austin. Our biggest argument is you have to be able to provide us with same level of services we are getting now."

Nelson says the city has plans to build a new fire station near the 3M facility on 2222, which would be several miles closer to her neighborhood. But city officials are unclear on how long it will take to get the new station in place, and funding may have to wait for the next bond election. "I don't feel we should have to deal with substandard response time for three to five years," says Nelson. "If it was sidewalks and library cards, it'd be one thing. But we are talking about heart attacks and things people die from."

Pete Sybesma, the fire contracts administrator at the Austin Fire Department, understands Nelson's concerns, but says they may be misplaced. "On a rational level, they are going to get more service and better service, because we have the variety and depth to respond to every kind of emergency," he said.

Sybesma says the city hopes to enter into first responder agreements with five fire departments in the surrounding area, including the Volente department near Nelson's home, plus Jollyville, Pflugerville in the northwest, and Oak Hill and Manchaca in the southwest (see map, p.20). Sybesma says the city will pay the departments to respond to emergency calls in their area. The payments from the city will replace the property tax funds the departments had formerly received from the areas being annexed. The agreements could last five years or more while the city builds additional facilities in those areas.

While the outlying fire departments will provide the first line of fire and EMS protection to many of the areas being annexed, they should not see a significant change in ambulance or Starflight response times, says Chris Callsen, the director of emergency services for Travis County. "Some will get service faster and some will get it slower," said Callsen. But, he adds, "In terms of ambulances and Starflight, nothing changes."

Callsen explained that EMS's ambulances are stationed in various locations around the county. And those same ambulances are already responding to calls from the MUDs and areas slated to be annexed. As for Starflight, he says the helicopters have always been dispatched from a central location, so response times will not change.

Police protection is always a big concern. And in the annexation debate, city residents and citizens facing annexation have both voiced fears about declining protection. There are two schools of thought: One is that with the added area, Austin Police Department (APD) officers will be spread thinner and thus be less able to respond to calls in both the inner city and the newly annexed areas; the other is that because the newly annexed areas have generally lower crime rates than inner city areas, APD will be able to effectively cover both areas, and because of newly added officers, police protection will be better than before.

Mayor Kirk Watson has touted the latter scenario, and APD officers agree.

Mike Sheffield, a 19-year veteran of APD who is vice president of the Austin Police Association, says, "I don't see those people getting less service because they are being annexed. Their police coverage won't suffer." Sheffield says the city plans to pay officers overtime to make sure that the new areas get covered.

Lt. Alan Riske, patrol sector lieutenant for the Adam sector in northwest Austin, says the annexed homeowners "shouldn't be worried" -- particularly when compared with the Travis County Sheriff's Department, APD's "response time should be faster," he says.

Riske says that although APD has 110 vacancies, the job openings are not affecting the patrol division, which he says has been at full strength for over a year. And with a new cadet class graduating on November 21, Riske says more patrol officers will be available to work in the newly annexed areas.

Carol Keesee, a resident of the Parmer-Avery Island neighborhood in northwest Austin, is familiar with both sides of the annexation issue. As president of the Northwest Austin Neighborhood Alliance, she saw her neighborhood get annexed by the city two years ago, and she singles out APD for praise. "They are better than the sheriff's department," said Keesee, who added that her neighborhood had been having problems with property crime. "They were very aware of the need to educate citizens about responding to things in their own communities, and that was something we never got from the sheriff's department."

Keesee says the people being annexed are smart to raise questions about emergency services. "We raised the same questions," she says. But she adds, "I have to tell you, I think we've had better service. And we see it's been a great asset to our neighborhood."

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