AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Fire Department is expected to open a new station late next month in the Loop 360/Davenport area, but a memo from Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker shows that even though the west Austin station was supposed to house an extension of the department’s wildfire division, the department doesn’t have what it needs to make that happen.
“On April 23, 2021, the Austin Fire Department (AFD) adopted a four-year plan for battalion realignment. We are unable to move forward with the original realignment plan since several of the key pieces of the plan have not come to fruition; namely the addition of two additional ladder trucks,” Baker wrote in a memo to fire department staff.
Chief of Staff Rob Vires said the following of the memo, in part, after KXAN reached out:
“This does not change our wildfire response or mission; that commitment to our customers remains the same. This affects only the EXPANSION of the Wildfire Battalion, which cannot occur until we add another aerial unit to our fleet. So far, that apparatus has not successfully made it through the budget request process, but we will continue to include it in future requests so that we can move forward with the expansion once that purchase is approved.”
Bob Nicks, the president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said the issue extends beyond the wildfire division, and that not being able to get new ladder trucks in service is an issue department-wide.
“We haven’t had a ladder put in service in the Austin Fire Department since 1995,” Nicks explained. It’s something he says he’s been bringing to city council members for quite some time.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said she was aware of the problems related to getting a new ladder truck but had no idea it had been since 1995 that one had been added to the fleet.
“I know of smaller departments in the community — Travis County, Williamson County — if that is in fact the case then we need to be more expedient in our priority for ensuring that we have the best and latest equipment available,” she said.
The Austin Fire Department has 13 ladder trucks right now, as has been the case for nearly three decades despite population growth, Nicks said. Other major Texas cities have more: San Antonio has 21, Houston has 37 and Fort Worth has 17, according to Nicks.
“It’s starting to affect our response to fires,” Nicks said. “You’re supposed to be able to get there within eight minutes of your first aerial (ladder truck) and we are way over that and in some parts of the city it’s pretty bad.”
Nicks says with a new city manager and city council members he’s hopeful the conversation moving forward will allow them to expand their fleet.
“I know that from prior budget discussions the fire department has asked city council for new trucks and I do think that we need to take a harder look at our apparatus replacement schedule to ensure that we are updating our apparatus as needed. That is something that I will make a priority in this next upcoming budget,” Kelly said.