Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional quotes and context to reflect the ways city council and public safety associations are working together to find commonsense solutions to community needs.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin EMS Association is worried there aren’t enough ambulances in the city to quickly respond to emergencies. Leadership representing the medics of Austin/Travis County EMS said they were disappointed they didn’t see any new vehicles in the budget released on Monday.
“We are seeing at least 50 calls per day that are related to COVID-19,” said Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.
Xie said at one point last Friday, 32 of the 33 ambulances in the entire county were unavailable. They were either in service, being decontaminated or going to the hospital.
She said the pandemic has led to a higher call volume and long response times. Medics also have to spend more time dealing with PPE issues and heat exhaustion brought on by the extra equipment.
“We are starting to see where each sector completely runs out of ambulances and that’s going to keep happening more and more as it gets hotter and as COVID continues to really hit Austin hard,” Xie said.
Xie said this year’s proposed budget did not include any new ambulances despite the public safety commissioner’s recommendation to add three.
The budget calls for ATCEMS to receive $96,896,126. That’s more than $3.8 million than last year. In addition to that, $1.5 million is being allocated for wage and benefit increases and $2.4 million is going to 38 positions.
The City of Austin has also added a new EMS station in Del Valle that opened on Tuesday. This location was a part of the 2020 budget. While Xie admits that helps call volume, she says it is too far away to address immediate needs in central Austin.
A new Austin Fire and ATCEMS station is also coming to southwest Austin. Construction on the $9.6 million project is expected to be finished by the summer 2021. It will be put up on Highway 290 near MoPac.
“Reimagining public safety” is a major theme in the 2021 proposed budget, which includes sweeping police overhaul measures and redirecting of funds to other services. City council member Jimmy Flannigan said allocating public safety resources is a difficult task.
“I am less focused on any one ask than I am about the holistic system and how it operates,” said Flannigan, the District 6 City Council member who also heads the Public Safety Committee.
Both Flannigan and Xie expressed a desire to improve public safety within city limits, specifically in the way police, fire and EMS responds to emergencies. Flannigan said that AFD and APD will sometimes get dispatched to calls when only medical services are needed.
Likewise, Xie said on Monday that she has been working with city council members, like Flannigan, to maximize efficiency for the ATCEMS team.
“We have been working with the Austin Police Association and city council members on thinking through calls that don’t require a police presence, thinking through ways to do better dispatching,” Xie said. “I’m really excited about Jimmy Flannigan’s passed resolution to get a new public safety committee and I am really excited for us to really think about how we dispatch calls, which calls each public safety agency goes to to really maximize the efficiency of public safety in Austin.”
“[I want to] ensure that we are sending the right response, that is targeted to the needs of the community, and that we are also being fiscally responsible,” Flannigan said. “The budget is a complicated process and ultimately, the manager has a very difficult job of trying to balance the growing needs of the community.”
Flannigan said it is ultimately the job of the city council to work, and then rework the budget, to find the most appropriate solutions. He said meeting the needs of the ATCEMS team is a top priority.
“Yes, we will adopt a budget in August. And yes, it will probably be disappointing to a lot of folks. But it is not going to be where the process ends,” Flannigan said, promising to create a schedule of budget amendments in all sectors and city departments to ensure the budget addresses the communities needs.