A half-dozen fire departments in Travis County, including the Austin Fire Department, have agreed to drop political boundaries when responding to 911 calls. The agreement, reached last week, also requires the departments to meet unified training and staffing standards.
The Austin Fire Department has had such automatic-aid agreements in place with county Emergency Services Districts for several years, but having a single agreement with five districts, mostly in the southwest part of the county, ensures consistent training and service standards when responding to fires in those areas, officials said. The sixdepartments participating in the agreement, of 14 in the county, will send the closest available fire truck to an emergency, regardless of whether it occurs in their jurisdiction or not.
“We wanted to standardize, across the board, our ability to deliver service to citizens,” Austin Assistant Fire Chief Harry Evans said. “What it means for the citizens is they get consistent reliable service regardless of the patch or emblem on the truck.”
According to the agreement, emergency dispatchers will consider the six departments’ fire trucks as part of the same system and will send the closest unit to fires and other emergency calls in those parts of the county.
The five districts have 14 fire stations serving about 210,000 residents. Austin Fire Department has 45 stations serving 821,000 residents.
Departments expect the agreement will lead to a roughly equal trade-off of responding to calls in other jurisdictions and getting help from neighboring departments. Austin Fire Department numbers show in 2012 the city responded to 1,710 calls in the five districts and the districts responded to 1,198 calls in the city.
But District No. 11 in Southeast Travis County, which has had a similar agreement with the city since 2011, backed out, citing concerns with the requirement of staffing each firetruck with four firefighters, a nationally recognized standard.
“We simply cannot meet that requirement,” said Travis County Fire Rescue Chief Ken Bailey of District 11. The district includes Circuit of the Americas.
The Austin Fire Department expects to have four firefighters on each truck by July; Oak Hill and Westlake Hills already have four-person staffing; Lake Travis is expecting to have four firefighters on all trucks later this year. The Ce-Bar department currently has three-person staffing but next month is asking voters to raise the sales tax rate that would pay for a fourth firefighter around the clock.
Pflugerville’s department currently has three-person staffing. Under the agreement, the department would have to hire more firefighters to have four on each truck; this comes at a time when the department has tapped into reserves to balance its budget and the county rejected a petition to call an election to raise extra taxes for the district.
The city also has so-called mutual aid agreements with six county departments, in which one department can request help from others nearby but is not automatically dispatched to respond; in 2012, the city responded to calls 158 times in the districts where it has mutual aid agreements and those districts responded to calls in Austin’s jurisdiction 82 times.