AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin says it’s prepared to activate its cold weather shelters during this week’s forecasted Arctic plunge, but the president of the Austin EMS Association wants the city to announce it will activate those shelters now.
The cold snap is expected to drop temperatures sharply, with wind chill temperatures falling to the single digits.
“They need to make the plans now & make them extremely accessible. Insane that they haven’t already made the call,” Selena Xie, the president of the association, tweeted, tagging the City of Austin Tuesday morning. EMS has specialized vans prepared to help people in the cold weather.
An email sent to the mayor, mayor pro-tem and Austin City Council members — which Council Member Mackenzie Kelly shared with KXAN — said Austin Public Health (APH) is in charge of determining when those shelters would open and that the deadline to activate is no later than 9 a.m. the day of “because of the time required to activate and mobilize all the required resources.”
It said the city will activate the shelters if temperatures are 32 degrees or colder overnight. The city also expanded the criteria to include opening the shelters if Austin hits 35 degrees and it’s raining or wet or 35 degrees with a wind chill of 32 or colder.
A city spokesperson said the following: “With the extended forecast of cold weather, and the cold weather spanning a holiday weekend, the City of Austin is coordinating with several local organizations – Austin Area Urban League, Red Cross, ADRN – and simultaneously reaching out to all City and County employees to staff the upcoming overnight shelters and warming centers. Sheltering capacity will not be impacted. Volunteers and staff all have plans with loved ones for the holidays including travel, but we thank them for being just as flexible as the changing weather to keep the community safe.”
But Xie said she wants the city to communicate sooner, and said even when the city officially makes that call, there is only a two-hour window for people to register for shelter: “which makes it really difficult to get everybody there that we need to get there.”
The registration window is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the One Texas Center. CapMetro will then transport people from that location to the shelters. A spokesperson for APH said they will also have people on-call in case that window is missed.
But Xie said the people who do not make it in that two-hour window are often forced to wait until the weather gets dangerous. Some eventually seek out a phone and call 911 for help. She said EMS responds “almost exclusively” to calls for people who need to get indoors or need medical help from being outside during cold weather events that are expected this week.
“They have a very rigid policy to go through, but we know that it is going to be sub-freezing this weekend and it is really important that they adjust their plans based on the weather that we know is going to happen,” Xie said.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the county was working with the city to prepare for the winter weather. He said though the city is in charge of the shelters, Travis County is stepping in to help staff them.
“She’s [Pilar Sanchez, County Executive of the Health and Human Services Department] getting county staff who frankly is going to have to make a big sacrifice in that this is the holidays and we’re asking people to work, possibly, ya know, even on Christmas day if the cold continues,” Brown said.
Brown asked people to take the forecast seriously and to make their way to the One Texas Center Thursday afternoon, if possible.
“They [the City of Austin] should have made the decision earlier, especially in light of it being a holiday weekend and making sure that we have staffing and other things in place for the cold weather shelters,” Xie said. “These policies that are very rigid do not work when it comes to emergencies.”