AUSTIN (KXAN) — Little black boxes are located on many public and private buildings around Austin — from City Hall to apartment complexes — and grant first responders quick access during emergencies without them having to break property or put themselves in danger.
Specifically, the “Knox Boxes” are opened with a key kept by first responders. Inside is another key or keycard that opens up the building.
While the Austin Fire Department crews have the master key to get inside the Knox Boxes, Austin-Travis County EMS paramedics don’t. This has been the case since 2018, when the City of Austin changed the Knox Box key system after a burglar was arrested for stealing a master key.
Lee Nudelman is the former vice president of the EMS Association and said paramedics, like firefighters, should be able to get into those boxes.
“Access is fundamental to being able to help people,” said Nudelman. “If I can’t get to you, I can’t help you.”
We brought these concerns to EMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown, who said access isn’t an issue. He said firefighters accompany medics on high-priority calls, like when someone has trouble breathing or is bleeding excessively.
Brown added medics also keep codes to buildings they’ve been before. In other words, he said they get in somehow.
“I don’t know it’s an issue of, we’ve got to have it now,” said Brown, on getting the Knox Box keys. “We are working through the process with our partners at the Austin Fire Department, and we’re sure we’ll have the [key] when the time is right.”
But Nudelman disagrees, saying emergencies aren’t predictable and every minute and second matters.
He added sometimes calls get upgraded to higher-priority, and firefighters haven’t been dispatched. Nudelman said he’s heard of multiple cases where this has happened to EMS paramedics.
Speaking on those instances, he said, “We’re either waiting for citizens to let us in or having to call for a fire resource if they weren’t dispatched and wait another five, seven minutes for them to arrive to be able to let us in.”
Brown said EMS is working through security measures to get the Knox Box keys. He added careful discretion is needed when it comes to providing this kind of access, and not to mention, the cost. In 2018, Austin City Council approved a $300,000 contract to bring in new lockboxes, keys and related equipment and services.
There are two types of keys first responders have. Austin firefighters have the aforementioned master keys to get into any Knox Box and get access to secured buildings. Both AFD and Austin-Travis County EMS have keys that will allow access to thousands of gated apartment complexes.
Previously, before the security changes in 2018, Nudelman said there was one master key for both gated apartments and buildings, and these were distributed to both firefighters and paramedics.