My name is AJ Padilla and I am an Austin Firefighter. I was given your contact information from Meredith Highsmith, former President of North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association. I asked her to help me and other Austin Firefighters get our message out about proposed cuts to public safety by the City Manager's office, with a more specific focus on the impact on the quality and level of service provided by the Austin Fire Department. These cuts have been debated by Council Members, including those running for re-election and higher office. This email is an effort to shed some more light on the subject, and offer additional facts as to how these cuts would affect all Austinites if implemented.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an agency that sets the industry standard regarding firefighter safety and fire department practices. NFPA 1710 states that a fire apparatus “shall be staffed with a minimum of four on-duty personnel”. While their recommendations are not law, they have been repeatedly and successfully cited and referenced during civil and criminal litigation to determine liability for cities and municipalities, whether or not they have adopted NFPA 1710 (fact sheet).
In November, 2007, the Austin City Council unanimously voted 7-0 and adopted Resolution 20071101-038 which referenced NFPA 1710. In doing so, they declared public safety a top priority and committed to 4-person staffing. Since that time, the economy had declined and revenue to the City has decreased accordingly. In an effort to close a $20 million gap for FY ending September, 2009, the City Manager’s office has asked all departments to find ways to cut spending from their budget. The Fire Department was asked to trim $200,000 from its budget. That, coupled with the additional $1.9 million savings to the City due to the contract offered to Firefighters being voted down, has realized a total savings of $2.1 million.
With the uncertain economic climate, and predictions of the crisis worsening, further cuts may be needed for FY 2009-10. The City Manager’s Office supports a plan to cut firefighter staffing from 4-person to 3-person in an effort to save money. This idea is also supported by some candidates in this election. This is in direct conflict with the unanimously passed Resolution 20071101-038, which some of these same candidates participating in that vote.
Cutting firefighters from 4-person to 3-person staffing would not only endanger firefighter safety, but would put the citizens of Austin at an unnecessary elevated risk, potentially effect their quality of service, and increase the potential for property loss. This argument is supported by numerous studies conducted fire departments across the country including the Dallas Fire Department, Seattle Fire Department, and Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Department. A study by The Ohio State University agreed with the fire department studies, and 4-person staffing has been endorsed by International Association for Fire Chiefs (of which Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr is a member), International City Managers Association and American Insurance Association to name a few. Perhaps the most interesting of these supporting arguments are those made by the Austin Fire Department itself. A study ordered by then-Chief of the Department Bill Roberts measured the difference in operational effectiveness of 3-person vs. 4-person staffing levels of companies operating at fires in various types of occupancies. This study found that:
· In a two-story residential fire, operational efficiency measured by time improved by 73% with 4-person staffing
· When performing an aerial ladder operation, efficiency improved by 66% with 4-person staffing.
· When performing engine company operations during high-rise fires, efficiency improved by 35% with 4-person staffing.
· This study also revealed that injury rates per 100 firefighters were 46% higher when companies operated with only 3-person staffing.
Additional research has been done and compiled on this subject. I would be happy to provide you a copy of these findings at your request.
To provide a specific example of how a reduction in firefighter staffing can effect you, consider the following: the fire apparatus at Fire Station #19, located at FM 2222 and Mopac, is classified by the City of Austin as a quint (can function as either an aerial ladder or pumping apparatus). When first put into service in 2007, Quint 19 was staffed with 6 firefighters. Today it has 4 firefighters, with the other two firefighters ‘redeployed’ to other assignments within city limits. If the plan to further reduce personnel on fire apparatus is realized, the staffing at Quint 19 could very likely be reduced again to three. That would translate into a 50% reduction in staffing at Station 19 in the past two years. In other words, half of the personnel resources originally assigned to Station 19 may no long be available to serve the citizens they are charged to protect.
City Manager Marc Ott, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and some mayoral candidates say that this reduction in staffing is acceptable and will in no way effect public safety, firefighter safety, response times, or the level of service that you currently enjoy. The fact of the matter is that if the proposed reduction to 3-person staffing were to be implemented citywide it would represent a reduction of 25% fewer firefighters responding to a structure fire, medical emergency, traffic injury, or any other emergency the Fire Department is called to mitigate. Given these facts, cutting core public safety services would be hard to defend. While the number of responding firefighters will be significantly reduced, your taxes paid to support these services will not. Also, there exists the very real possibility that the ISO Fire Suppression Rating for the City of Austin could be downgraded. This could result in rising homeowner’s insurance costs.
It is not the position of Austin Firefighters that we should not share in the burden of helping to close the budget gap. It is, however, our position that core public safety services (namely firefighter staffing) should not be the first or even the fourth option. It should not be an option at all, as a reduction in staffing on fire apparatus to save money essentially puts a price tag on the safety of all Austinites. Additional and alternative cost-saving options have not been explored at depth or even considered. Some of the suggestions include leaving an Assistant Chief position vacant due to a recent retirement. This will save the City well over $110,000 in salary, plus the cost of medical and pension benefits. The City plans on starting another Fire Cadet Academy the first week of August, 2009. This cadet class is currently unfunded and will cost in excess of $2 million to complete. Costs include unplanned overtime for instructors, as well as salaries and benefits for the Cadets. These costs will become permanent, and increase, once the Cadets graduate.
I urge you to be direct with the candidates, and ask them some tough questions.
· How will cutting core public safety services by as much as 25% not adversely affect the tax-paying voters of Austin?
· Why is Resolution 20071101-038 that directs the City Manager to implement 4-person staffing on Austin fire apparatus being ignored?
· What other budget cuts can the Fire Department exercise without reducing firefighter staffing on fire apparatus?
· What is the Public Safety Task Force doing with respect to this proposed firefighter staffing cut?
No candidate will question the importance of public safety. The question is, however, which candidates will keep public safety a top priority and do everything they can to ensure that the good citizens of Austin are protected at all times, especially when times are at their worst. After all, isn’t that when you need public safety the most?
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me either through email or by phone.
Thank you for your time,
SoCalAJ [Email address: SoCalAJ #AT# gmail.com - replace #AT# with @ ]