Naked City

Unions Slam Police, Fire Cuts

Leaders of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters and Austin Police Association gathered June 5 to decry potential cuts to the city's public-safety budget that, they say, could cripple basic services. At issue are potential cost-saving staffing solutions -- for the firefighters, a plan to half-staff new "squad" trucks to be deployed in Central Austin and for the police, rumors of pressure to reduce patrol staffing citywide.

Built on a pickup truck chassis, the squad, or minipumper, holds 300 gallons of water, a length of hose, and another hose connected to the truck's onboard water source. AAPF President Scott Toupin said the squad's size is advantageous for inner-city maneuvering, but the department's proposed staffing strategy is making his membership nervous. While the squads are built to carry four firefighters, City Hall and Fire Chief Gary Warren have proposed staffing them with only two, which "goes against the firefighter staffing resolution passed by the council last year," Toupin said. The two-man squads would cut $1 million out of AFD's budget -- but firefighter safety standards require that four firefighters be present at a structure fire before an entry is attempted, unless there is a known life-threatening situation. If a squad responds first, the two-man team would have to hold off until another truck with additional firefighters arrives.

Because of this "two-in, two-out" rule, Warren and Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman have proposed that squads only be placed in fire stations that are near other fully staffed houses -- initially, fire stations No. 9 in Hyde Park and No. 4 in Old West Austin. Toupin said the AAPF is planning to present the AFD administration with several alternative staffing plans later this month. "It's not necessary to put firefighters at risk with two-man companies," he said.

Meanwhile, APA President Mike Sheffield joined the call for careful deliberation over cuts that could affect basic services. Budget cuts "have to be surgical," said Sheffield. "They can't be cookie-cutter, one size fits all." The union fears that APD might have to reduce patrol-officer staffing and wants City Hall to commit to maintaining at least 80% of full staffing levels for patrol officers in each of the city's nine area commands. "We support cuts that don't directly impact on our ability to provide safety services to the citizens of Austin," he said.

Sheffield said the city should not save money by cutting staffing below eight officers on any given shift. "In the past we've had shifts go out at 50% staffing," he said, "and I don't think we should cut back on that service delivery." Reduced staffing means longer response times, backlogged calls, and the chance that officers won't have easy access to backup units. Sheffield said there has been some talk that the department would cut back to 70% staffing. "We don't want to see [the 80% staffing level] backed off on," he said. "When these things go away, it impacts services."

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