The Long Road to Responsive Fire Coverage

It appears the city’s in no big rush

A map of the city. The purple shadings represent regions AFD's planning and research section has identified as being lacking in terms of its fire response times – areas where trucks are not able to respond to calls within eight minutes. The yellow shadings represent "horizon" areas, regions with increasing populations that could become purple areas.

The city remains in the process of plugging holes in its fire coverage map. That's not likely to change anytime soon. Last spring, City Council asked the City Manag­er's Office to figure out how to place and (more importantly) pay for a set of new stations, which advocates say could have a lasting impact on how quickly firefighters can navigate the city. If history proves anything to go on, it could be years before the city's efforts bear any fruit.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano updated Council in early October via memo, explaining that in order to comply with the stated goal of city trucks responding to calls within eight minutes, the office had identified five locations it could consider in specific need: Travis Country, Loop 360, Goodnight Ranch, Moore's Crossing, and Canyon Creek. Arellano further explained that funding options were still being determined, but that any new stations would generally need to be paid for through either a bond (in 2018's election) or partnerships with private entities.

Sometimes fire coverage can take 18 years.

That remains the case today. The Fire Department confirmed in early November that the city has identified possible sites for the five stations, but that not all of the land has been purchased by the city. There is one station currently undergoing construction: the new Onion Creek location, which was funded through bond money from 2012. AFD submitted a request for that station and others in 2011, but only Onion Creek was funded through that bond, and the others continued to languish. The Onion Creek station project began this summer; the Public Works Department hopes it will be completed by the end of next summer. That area was originally targeted for a station in the early 2000s. Sometimes fire coverage can take 18 years. ...

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks insists that the larger problem is the city's lack of any comprehensive system for determining at regular intervals how to maintain and add to its public safety infrastructure. "The primary thing is we have the 11th biggest city in the nation, and we're growing faster than any of the [cities] before us on that list," he said. "And we don't have a plan for how to build emergency infrastructure." In a presentation to the Public Safety Commission last March, Nicks explained that the department and union were working together to provide Council with the necessary information to address those shortcomings. As the city continues to grow and annex surrounding areas, coverage has and will continue to suffer without a better mechanism in place for identifying and fixing coverage gaps. "The citizens of Austin trust their firefighters, so we need to be honest with them," he said. "We need to be honest with them when we're doing well, and most importantly need to be honest with them when we need to do better."

Pieter Sybesma, a former principal planner for the city who retired in 2003, has a long history of trying to identify areas of need for fire coverage. In 1995, he wrote an article for Fire Chief magazine in which he advocated for a more holistic and data-driven approach to the process for building new fire stations. Nicks has called on Sybesma as a consultant in recent years as he's tried to raise awareness about the issue. He said Austin's spotty coverage map could get it into trouble with annexed land, which could sue for disannexation based on state rules about comparable coverage.

Sybesma said it would take the city building two new fire stations per year to catch up with demand. Austin's current pace falls way short of that. And with those new stations would come ongoing costs that Council would have to decide how to pay for. "Frankly, from the City Council's perspective, that's a big commitment," Sybesma said. "And when the Fire Depart­ment is competing with all of these other needs and wants of other departments ... it comes down to your council members' priorities for the community. And in a lot of cases with emergency services, things do not happen until after there's a tragedy. And this process was trying to get ahead so we didn't have a tragedy. But it's not a cheap process."

Arellano reiterated on Monday that staff is working "to identify areas of need and secure funding" for new stations, and said his office recently submitted a recommendation to the Bond Election Advisory Task Force suggesting that the city potentially fund the five new stations through a future bond package. "No one entity has taken the lead on the issue," added an AFD spokesperson. "We – along with the association and city management/Council – have worked together to address this topic, as it has many different facets."

The caption on this story has been updated. The City Manager’s office did not create the map, as previously noted.

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Austin Fire Department, Bob Nicks, Pieter Sybesma, Rhoda Mae Kerr

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