Letter: Rural firefighters back city chief in annexation fight

Saddleridge cove lightning fire
Fire caused by lightning on Saddleridge Cove

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The lines are being drawn in a turf war over which fire protection agency should serve Austinites in recently annexed areas of Travis County or where outlying property owners receive city services.

Austin’s Fire Association filed a lawsuit on June 11 against the City of Austin alleging a year-old contract for automatic aid with Emergency Services District fire departments for normal fire protection breaks civil service rules. The suit alleges those rules mandate only city fire department staff be used for city fire protection.

The association’s suit shows the ESD contracts go beyond traditional mutual aid agreements where an outlying agency can be asked to augment city emergency response, such as during a wildfire or flood.

In a letter obtained by KXAN, dated March 7, 2014, six ESD fire chiefs stated to Mayor Lee Leffingwell that they supported Austin Fire Chief Rhona Mae Kerr’s approach to regional fire protection.

“To the extent possible, we believe the political boundaries should not impact emergency response and it is contrary to our mission to send an emergency unit from a greater distance in someone’s time of need,” the chiefs wrote.

To the question of whether property owners in outlying areas of Austin are less safe with ESD fire departments acting as first responder, Association President Bob Nicks told KXAN he equates a better-funded agency to better service.

“The tax base (in ESDs) is lower than the suburban, metro areas,” Nicks said. “(That equates to less) training, equipment, lower salaries (which has an impact on) personnel saying longer.”

KXAN obtained a copy of the contract with ESDs 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 through an Open Records request.

It spells out minimum operating standards including having engines and aerial vehicles staffed with four certified firefighters at all times. It also shows Auto-Aid Operational Guidelines will be reviewed and revised annually by participating fire chiefs.

The contract stipulates as soon as possible after a response situation is stabilized, all outside fire suppression agencies are to be released. The contact allows for reimbursement for any costs if an automatic response extends beyond four hours at which point it shifts to a mutual aid-type response.

KXAN has asked for a list of reimbursement requests since the ESD contract went into effect in January 2013.

AFD’s unmet needs list for the FY2015 budget year includes $2.1 million for a temporary fire station on Elroy Road, near the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.

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