Whether Saving Lives During the Freeze or Saving the City From Save Austin Now, Bob Nicks Just Helped
"I didn’t do a thing. I sat in my office and dispatched people. But I was part of it.”
Bob Nicks' phone lit up with call after call as he drove over icy roads into Austin. Some were from his colleagues at the Austin Fire Department, where Nicks is a battalion chief and the president of the firefighters' union. The rest were from people trapped in their homes, freezing.
It was the fifth day of Winter Storm Uri, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. The power was still out for much of Central Texas. Back at his home in Giddings, two generations of Nicks' family huddled in the living room, where a tiny gas heater kept the temperature at 43 degrees. It was 9 degrees in the rest of the house.
Nicks had woken at 5am thinking about the message public officials had broadcast since the storm began: Stay put, they had stressed. Don't leave your house. That advice made sense in the early hours of the disaster, when the roads were littered with accidents, including a 22-car pileup in North Austin. But now the roads were empty and, more importantly, the power still wasn't back on.
"The whole notion that, when people are freezing in their homes, the main advice is to stay home really bothered me," Nicks told the Chronicle in one of several wide-ranging conversations. "I'm from Michigan. So I kind of know that people can't live when they're freezing."
This frustration was gnawing at Nicks at 6:30am when KXAN reporter Sally Hernandez asked him what Austinites could do to help the firefighters. Nicks ignored the question. "I've heard some officials have said, 'Stay at home, even if you've lost power,'" he replied instead. "And I would say what you need to do is find a friend who has heat. And find somebody with a truck who can get you there. And if you can't, call firefighters. We'll help you."
With that, Nicks gave out his personal cellphone number on live TV, twice. "I knew the response was going to be elevated, but the response was crazy," he said. "I got like 400 phone calls in two days. So I sent out a message real quick to my membership about what I'd just done – 'Hey, volunteer if you have a four-wheel-drive truck.' And then I started driving in."
High Empathy, Not Heroics
Bob Nicks is a union man through and through, one who emphasizes the solidarity of the group over the successes of any individual. He loves telling stories and will tell one after another, and will retell them. But he gets uncomfortable when asked about his own accomplishments. To him, that's "hero worship."
"I never realized why I didn't like organized sports, spectator sports," he explained. "I don't watch football, I don't care about any of that. Then one day I realized why. It promotes hero worship. When we do that, at any level, it takes away from the real good stuff. And the real good stuff is the work the association has done."
That includes coming to terms with the need for AFD to reflect Austin's diversity and the city's equity goals. In 2010, when Nicks was first elected president of the Austin Firefighters Association (International Association of Firefighters Local 975), his mandate from the membership was to keep City Hall from taking recruiting and hiring away from the department. Critics of that hiring process pointed to a department where 85% of firefighters were white men to claim the process was stacked against aspiring firefighters who weren't. The U.S. Department of Justice got involved in 2012, leading to a consent decree in 2014 and federal oversight of AFD hiring until 2018.
All parties to that consent decree, including the union, agreed that Austin's process was not designed to discriminate but nonetheless had a disparate impact. Nicks stresses that his members were fine with having a more diverse and inclusive department, but they didn't trust the city to devise tests that would pick good firefighters. "I don't know if you have children, but if your daughter is in a car wreck and metal is wrapped around her and you get someone who shows up in a firefighter's uniform to help, that person better have good mechanical aptitude," he said. "They better know spatial orientation very well. When you look at the top 150-plus attributes of firefighters, those things are in the top five."
As the union struggled with the issue and tried, with mixed success, to get its concerns reflected in the consent decree, the subject became, in Nicks' words, "kind of a hobby of mine." The AFA eventually hired experts to design a new process that shifted focus from pencil-and-paper testing, designed to weed out the less-than-best candidates, to live interviews where applicants were asked how they would handle specific situations. The department began using it in 2012; in the decade since, the share of women and people of color in its firefighting force has doubled to 30%, and last year, white men represented only 25% of those who entered the hiring pipeline.
"When I came in, in the mid-Eighties, there were just a bunch of tough, salty old men who worked in the Fire Department," Nicks said. "We didn't talk about our feelings much. Now, we try to solicit people with high degrees of conscientiousness and empathy, [and that's] the way we structure our test batteries for entry. And the advantage is you get really caring people who love the community and want to give back, and care about you when they get on scene. They want the best for you. The downside of somebody who is very conscientious and has high empathy is that it's really hard to put that in a box and put it away again at the end of the day."
Nicks is himself some variety of salty old man. He has seen horrible car wrecks over his 36-year career, people burned to death, people drowned. But until Winter Storm Uri he'd never experienced "post-incident stress" – the emotional repercussions that follow traumatic experiences. "I've seen teenagers bleed out on scene and die right before my eyes. That didn't bother me as much as the storm, believe it or not."
When Austin Froze Over
A year ago, Feb. 17, when Nicks reached the AFA's union hall on Cameron Road, power had again gone out and his desktop computer was useless. He set up a whiteboard and began paging through the texts and calls he'd received, choosing which to act upon first. On one side he wrote callers' numbers and situations. On the other side he stuck pink Post-it Notes with firefighters' contact information. "I dispatched people by moving that pink Post-it over to the name, and then I'd go on to delete that text, because then it was solved. I ran that way for two days straight."
One of those callers "was this 97-year-old lady we saved on the west side of town. She [had] no food, or heat, or water, I think it was for four days." She lived at the top of a hill where Fire and EMS trucks had been unable to reach her. Nicks called an off-duty firefighter who he thought could make it.
"He goes, 'What happens if I wreck my car?' He had a new Subaru Forester. I said, 'Man, you're on your own. The city ain't gonna give you shit for that, I guarantee you.' He was really proud of his vehicle but he went up there, put some kitty litter in the back [to gain traction on] the ice, had trouble getting up there, but got there. And the lady, she was so surprised to see him. She had thought she was going to die." The firefighter brought the woman and her two cats down the hill and dropped her at her daughter's house. Other firefighters performed similar rescues throughout the day.
Nicks slept poorly that night. "All I dreamt about every minute of the night was the phone going off, every minute of my sleep. And then the next day I kept thinking I was hearing it even when I wasn't."
While Nicks dispatched volunteer firefighters across the city, the union hall itself became a safe haven for people without shelter. At the time, Collective Campaigns, a political consulting business, rented half of the building; the group has worked on campaigns for AFA and for candidates such as former Council Member (and likely future U.S. Rep.) Greg Casar and District Attorney José Garza. Its own staffers formed the nucleus of a labor union representing Austin's many political campaign organizers.
Romteen Farasat is one of the founders of Collective Campaigns. He and his colleagues worked through the day and into the night of Monday, Feb. 15 – when the temperature dropped to 7 degrees – bringing unsheltered people into the hall's warmth. "The second day, Bob Nicks walked into the office and he notices that we've got some folks staying there, homeless folks and also some [of our] union members, sleeping on our side of the hall," Farasat said. "I didn't have that close of a relationship with Bob at that point, so I was unsure how he was gonna react, having homeless people in the hall. But when he found out what happened, he was like, 'That's amazing, this is great! I'm going to call [Council Member] Natasha Harper-Madison and see if we can get some cots. And let's just open up the whole hall, both sides of it.'"
Unsheltered people, sometimes as many as 200 at a time, stayed there over the next two weeks. "There were several layers of the operation," said Jacob Aronowitz, another leader of Collective Campaigns. "There was this part that was just a bunch of people in cars, with a spreadsheet and a dispatch system, going to every camp in the city in giant relays, picking people up and bringing them back. And there was also a donation drive component.
"And then there would be people who would staff the shelter. That's a lot of what I did. Just like literally hanging out there with the unsheltered folks and talking to them and asking them what they need, and kind of looking after them. ... There were dozens of other people in my union and in the firefighter union who were doing the same thing."
Police and EMS were rescuing the unsheltered as well. "We had our medics going to all the different homeless camps, bringing them to the warming facilities," said Selena Xie, Nicks' counterpart as president of the Austin Travis County Emergency Medical Services Association. Medics also saved the lives of many who rely on electrical equipment – such as those on dialysis or supplemental oxygen – and others who had been unable to refill prescription medications.
With grocery stores and restaurants closed, EMS also coordinated meals for first responders, many of whom were pulling 24-hour shifts. Police officers were feeding people too. "I think we ended up doing over 30 big cooks," said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. "And that's literally the hardest I've ever worked at APD. I worked eight straight days, I stayed [at the police union hall], I lived there. And we cooked, literally every morning, thousands of breakfast tacos to feed the police officers, some paramedics, and to provide food for the homeless over there that Bob had at his location."
Wednesday and Thursday were the height of the crisis. On Friday, Feb. 19, as the temperature rose above freezing for the first time in a week, water began pouring from hundreds of broken pipes across the city. Collective Campaigns and its allies, and Nicks and his firefighters, took the trucks they'd used to rescue people and redeployed them to deliver water. That effort continued for another month. "He was very hands-on in every part of the process," Farasat said, "whether it was filling a bucket with a hose, attaching a fire hose line to fire hydrants, transporting things, being in touch with City Council members. I mean, he was as hands-on as it gets."
On the third day of Austin Needs Water, Nicks had an idea to make the effort more efficient. Chad Rittenberry was a volunteer doing the same kind of logistical work that Nicks had done earlier in the crisis, connecting those who needed water with drivers hauling totes. "Bob came in at eight in the morning and we were all there," Rittenberry said. "And he was like, 'I dreamt about this last night' – it came to him in a dream – 'we can get a five-gallon bucket, drill some holes in it, put some plumbing in there and then pour some concrete in it to weigh it down. And then we can hook up the fire hydrants to it, stepping the hoses down to the size of a garden hose, and distribute them all around the city.'"
The invention, dubbed "Bob Buckets," was essentially a portable water spigot, hooked to a fire hydrant, which could bring fresh water right to the doorsteps of the people in need. Nicks couldn't get the city of Austin to help construct the buckets – in fact he found the city to be more a hindrance than a help throughout the crisis – so members of ANW built them alongside the battalion chief into the wee hours of Feb. 21.
By the end, Farasat, Aronowitz, and Nicks had become good friends. "It was very old-school, very like the Great Depression," Aronowitz said. "Families and communities taking care of all of their people. And honestly, Bob's really cool. He kind of has, like, active grandpa vibes. He's everybody's friend, always telling stories. He's a really cool person."
Crossing the thin Blue line
"According to Save Austin Now, I'm actually a national leader of the DSA," Nicks said, referring to the Democratic Socialists of America. "Absurd. But they were desperate, and desperate people can be smart too – and they were smart. They saw the same polling I saw. They knew that if the firefighters came out against them that they were going to lose."
Save Austin Now, the GOP-aligned political action committee that in May 2021 succeeded in reinstating Austin's criminal penalties for public camping, sought to build on that triumph last November with a citizen initiative, backed by Casaday's APA, to mandate that the city employ two police officers for every 1,000 residents. Opponents said the measure, put to the voters as Proposition A, would force the city to defund parks, libraries, EMS, and Fire to free up funds to hire scores of new officers. And thanks to bills enacted by the Texas Legislature in 2019 and 2021, the city could neither raise taxes to pay for Prop A hiring now, nor cut the police budget in the future if money grew tight.
Last summer, as SAN collected signatures to get the measure on the ballot, its co-founder Cleo Petricek met with Nicks to make sure the firefighters would stay on the sidelines during the campaign. Petricek told the Chronicle that Nicks agreed at first. "Bob Nicks, when he met with us, indicated that he would not be getting the union involved in police issues," Petricek said, "and we held him to that. ... But somebody got in his ear."
Petricek speculates that Greg Casar or José Garza, DSA progressives who were endorsed by AFA, changed Nicks' mind. "That's kind of a classic sort of attack from Save Austin Now," Nicks said. "The notion is that there's paymasters out there and you're yielding down to them, bowing down to these paymasters, and doing their bidding. It's just malarkey."
Nicks said he split with SAN on Prop A because the math showed it would hurt his members. He set up a meeting at the union hall to present both sides of the issue. Petricek and SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak joined Casaday to argue that firefighters should stay neutral, while AFSCME's Carol Guthrie and former Council Member Bill Spelman urged them to oppose the measure. "We debated that for three hours," Casaday said. "We had people calling in questions, firefighters calling in, many very angry at the fire department for getting involved in it."
After continued debate and an online ballot of the membership, Nicks held a press conference Oct. 1 to announce that 57% of his union had voted to oppose Prop A. He emphasized that the firefighters weren't opposing the police. "Austin firefighters love and respect our Austin police officers," he said. "[This] was never about disrespecting the police. It was only about examining the consequences of a poorly written law."
Many officers and their supporters were still hurt that firefighters had broken with their natural allies for the first time in memory. But a week later, the EMS union also came out against Prop A. "We really did try to stay out of it," Xie said. "But it was just a bad proposition."
For the remaining month of the campaign, Nicks was on Twitter almost every day pushing the anti-Prop A case. The measure's supporters responded that there was plenty of money in the city's budget; that the police force was so depleted that officers no longer responded to calls; and even that the AFA election had been rigged. Some personally attacked Nicks, calling him a socialist, communist, liar, imbecile, degenerate, and tyrant.
"They became fixated on me because they knew if they could discredit me to my membership, if they could discredit me to the public, then people wouldn't listen to the association," Nicks said. "And I tried to communicate, because I've always had this notion that when two people get together that are reasonably intelligent and they discuss facts, they'll probably both change a little bit ... But now I know there are certain people that doesn't work with."
On election day, Prop A lost in a landslide, and many like AFSCME's Guthrie believe it was the firefighters' opposition that made the difference. "I think so, I do," she said. "I think when the general public saw that firefighters got on board, and then EMS got on board [with the anti-Prop A campaign], that this wasn't something against public safety."
Casaday was not happy to lose, but it hasn't affected his respect for Nicks. "What I can say is Bob gave me and my vice president a fair shake and allowed us to come there [to the debate at the union hall]. So it was a fair process. And, you know, I wish they wouldn't have made the decision that they did, but they did, and that's their right."
Looking Ahead, Together
"I call all three of us 'frenemies,'" Selena Xie said, speaking of her fellow union presidents. "I actually am friends with Bob and Box [Casaday's nickname]. But we also recognize that in some ways we're competing for the same resources. In some ways, city politics is a zero-sum game."
With Prop A in the rearview mirror, Xie, Casaday, and Nicks are struggling once again over money. The labor contracts for all three public safety agencies are set to be renewed this year. For Xie, the negotiations are particularly high-stakes. Most agree that EMS is at a crossroads, with the stress of the COVID era and years of low pay having destroyed morale.
"These past few years have been terrible," Xie said. "There are a lot of really hard things about the job. We're vastly underpaid compared to firefighters and police officers. We have multiple medics that are firefighters now, we have multiple medics who have become police officers, but nobody comes to EMS. It's a one-way street."
Casaday has a similar lament. APD officers have been leaving the force in unprecedented numbers. Though the department offers the highest pay in the state, the union boss said it's not enough with Austin's rising cost of living. And it's the same story for the firefighters. Nicks has been part of six previous negotiations, and says that concern about wages and benefits is higher than he's ever seen.
In three of those previous negotiations, the union couldn't agree with the city on a new contract. Given that history, AFA asked Austin voters last year to allow either the union or the city, instead of both, to seek binding arbitration in case of stalemate. (The union had won its collective bargaining rights, only available to police and fire unions in Texas, at a previous election, replacing the "meet and confer" consultation process still used by the police.) An independent arbitrator would be appointed to develop a new contract using findings of fact to decide which side wins on which issues.
AFA hired Collective Campaigns to get a binding arbitration measure on the ballot in May 2021, where it passed with 80% of the vote. That same night, 57% of voters voted for the camping ban, which Collective Campaigns had worked hard to defeat. So the election night party at the union hall was bittersweet, with Nicks celebrating his win and Collective Campaigns mourning their loss. Romteen Farasat remembers how Nicks consoled him. "I remember we were drinking a bottle of Woodford Reserve, me and Bob, sitting down on the firefighters hall side, and just drinking straight whiskey from the bottle. And he told me when we were drinking that bottle of whiskey that working on the winter freeze operation was one of the greatest experiences of his life. I think, actually, the greatest experience of his life. Which, for a 60-something-year-old firefighter, that's a big statement."
The Chronicle asked Nicks if Farasat's recollection was accurate. He paused, decided to say, "Yeah," then paused again. This was the kind of question that made him uncomfortable – a question about him, not the union. He finally responded: "As far as acutely proud of anything over a two- or three-day event, yeah. I probably had a hand in helping save a lot of people. Probably more than I ever did in my career."
And then he added to his answer, to make sure we understood. "But now – again – I didn't do a thing. I sat in my office and dispatched people. But I was part of it."