AUSTIN (KXAN) — Conflict is brewing among one group of frustrated Central Texas first responders currently on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Multiple viewers asked the KXAN Investigative team to look into a blog post circulating online that was written by Austin-Travis County EMS paramedic Damon Fogley, who serves the Lake Travis community. He’s accusing Lake Travis Fire Rescue of “fear discrimination” after it moved a crew of ATCEMS paramedics out of their fire station in Steiner Ranch last week.
“This week I was told to leave one of the fire stations that I have worked in over this past year by [the] fire department staff simply because I’m an EMS provider,” Fogley wrote. “I have never tested positive for COVID-19. I don’t have any symptoms of it and neither does my partner. It might not seem like a big deal to you if you’re reading this, but to us being asked to leave our station is a huge deal. My truck/station has been reassigned three times in one week because nobody knows what to do with us. This is not okay. Why in this day and age have we let fear take over our ability to make rational decisions? Furthermore, why am I being treated like a refugee when I’m needed the most by those who are on my own team?”
KXAN reached out to Fogley, who confirmed he wrote the blog post, and also started an online petition, but said he is not allowed to discuss EMS-related issues per his department guidelines.
Lake Travis Fire Rescue Chief Robert Abbott said his decision to move Fogley’s EMS unit had nothing to do with discrimination.
“I think that’s a little over sensationalized, and we acknowledge he has concerns as well,” said Abbott.
Abbott said he moved the EMS demand unit last Monday to the Lake Travis Fire Rescue department’s headquarters off RM 620 in Lakeway after firefighters at the Steiner Ranch station raised concerns about how paramedics were handling potential COVID-19 calls and personal protective equipment, which he says is no longer an issue.
“When this issue came up last week, it was very new,” said Abbott. “Everybody was writing this book as it was going. Nobody had the perfect answer, but we have a fundamental responsibility that if one of our employees raises a safety concern that we act on it.”
In his blog post, Fogley called their new location a warehouse, and included one photo of one room full of equipment.
“There are no beds, no showers, no internet, no computer, no recliners, no kitchen, no stove, no TV, and no people around except for those we can hear through a wall,” Fogley wrote.
Abbott showed KXAN the new space which includes additional rooms. There is a restroom, a kitchenette, a microwave, a table to eat at, and another room where paramedics can sit and work, and wait between calls.
“It’s not the optimal space,” said Austin-Travis County EMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown. “We’d like them to have separate rooms where they can get some better rest. We would normally move in furniture, but since it’s temporary we didn’t move in that furniture.”
The building is not designed to be a fire station, and Abbott agreed it is not ideal.
“At the moment, we need to be focused on COVID-19, and I also need to protect our employees,” Abbott said. “I know this was an unpopular decision and the blog that went out hit a nerve, but we’re not anti-EMS at all.”
He said ATCEMS and Lake Travis Fire Rescue have had success working together in the past. Abbott also said the paramedics are now closer to the hospital, the city of Lakeway, and have quick access to Ranch to Market Road 620.
Leadership on both sides say there’s no hard feelings between the two, and they are working toward a better long-term solution.
“I don’t take it as they don’t want us there, or they’re scared of us,” said Brown.
Abbott said the two entities continue to run calls together.
“We value them just as much as anybody else and that doesn’t change,” said Abbott.