KXAN sits down with Austin’s outgoing fire chief to talk about the state of AFD

Rhoda Mae Kerr (KXAN Photo)
Rhoda Mae Kerr (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On the heels of Austin’s first female fire chief’s announcement to retire from the department, KXAN’s Kylie McGivern sat down with Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr to talk about where AFD stands with some of the controversies it’s faced and what a new chief will inherit.

When asked what loose ends she feels the next chief will have to take over, Chief Kerr said, “I mean certainly the budget. I think fire stations — prompting and continuing to, you know, push on getting those built and obviously staffed.”

In May, a KXAN Investigation revealed Austin spends more on overtime that Dallas, with AFD, clocking in more overtime than any other city department. The investigation prompted city council members to call for an audit. It found AFD didn’t implement adequate overtime cost-saving measures.

Wages in the department are among the highest in the state, on average.

KXAN asked if nearly two years is an acceptable timeframe to get some of the OT concerns in line.

“Ah, you know it’s a tough timeframe to squeeze all that into when you realize that we got here as a result of years of not hiring appropriately and not having a way to hire,” Chief Kerr said. “We went for a year without hiring and when you don’t hire for a year, or you don’t hire for two years, it takes a long time to catch up. We can’t just hire 500 people quickly and rapidly, and it’s seven months of training.”

The hiring freeze came from the Department of Justice. Though scrutiny from the department still remains, she says today things are better.

“We’re trending down, we are pretty optimistic that we will stay within budget,” Chief Kerr said, adding the hope is “the next chief will not have to go back before, you know, midyear budget and ask for additional funds.”

In December, female firefighters with the Austin Firefighters Association came forward saying AFD failed to thoroughly investigate complaints made against a former lieutenant, which led to an unsafe work environment and potentially put the public at risk.

“We did what was appropriate based upon the information that we had at the time. We are now putting into place and working collaboratively with the labor side, to develop a process that has a safe reporting mechanism,” Chief Kerr said. “We are developing a process where an individual can report safely, confidentially, and get response back, get some feedback back and I don’t know what that’s going to look like, we do know that it will include one of our staff psychologists.”

Another issue AFD has struggled with is diversity in its ranks, something the Department of Justice has been monitoring since 2014. Chief Kerr says they’ve made changes to the testing process, but there’s still room for improvement.

In her nine years as head of the department, Chief Kerr says she’s proud of the relationship the organization has with the community. In her time, she expanded the department’s outreach to provide smoke alarms, more than 2,500 a year, among other accomplishments.

She gave one example of the type of people in her department, a situation that stuck with her. Chief Kerr said it was when a crew was responding to a call and had to help a disabled man off his porch that they realized the existing wheelchair ramp was destroyed. She described how the crew went back to the station, picked up necessary supplies and went back to the home to build a new ramp.

“It’s those kinds of things I’m most proud of,” she said.

“We all owe Chief Kerr a huge debt for keeping Austin safe and for being a wonderful and innovative change agent,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said on Wednesday. “We’ll miss her leadership, and I’ll miss working with her. She has been a terrific role model for young women not just here but nationally.”

Kerr plans to return to Fort Lauderdale, where her firefighting career started 30 years ago, to be the fire chief there. Her last day on the job is July 1.

“There is not a department that does it better anywhere in the world. And I just want to say thank you not only to the members of the department, but the community and all the people that have welcomed me and treated me with respect and given me love so thank you very much.”

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