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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Fire and police response times lagging due to low staffing

In an effort to serve citizens as quickly, efficiently and proficiently as possible, Austin public safety departments have response time goals. For the Fire Department, this means response times of eight minutes 90 percent of the time, while police should arrive at the scene within 6 minutes and 44 seconds for the highest-priority calls.

However, in a quarterly update to the Public Safety Commission at its May 6 meeting, statistics showed that the public safety departments aren’t meeting those goals.

“I’m not trying to say we’re not doing a great job,” Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales told the Austin Fire Department, but “you’re only meeting that (goal) in one of your districts.”

Similarly, the Austin Police Department is also falling behind in meeting response times to its priority calls. “We have not been hitting our citywide target for our priority 0 and priority 1 calls,” said APD Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon.

In the police department, the highest-priority (P0) calls are delayed from the goal by around a minute for the last quarter, and the second-highest-priority (P1) calls are delayed by about 35 seconds.

For the Fire Department, District 8 and District 6 have the longest average response times of just over 10 minutes. District 9 and District 3 have the shortest average response times at 8:39 and 8:57, respectively. In the first quarter of the year, AFD was meeting its response times in Central Austin’s District 9 with an average response time of 7:57.

AFD Chief of Staff Rob Vires explained that response time goals are set based on national standards and that they are used within the department to highlight sectors where more staff is required. “Based on response times, we know which parts of town we have a coverage issue,” he said.

Several factors influence the police and fire departments’ response times, including the location of stations, type of call and number of staff. Particularly in West Austin, where both departments are struggling to meet their goals, the large landmass that officers cover in conjunction with a lower density of stations makes it difficult to respond within the nationally set time limit.

To keep response times from stretching out, APD redraws its patrol sector lines annually to help balance call load. AFD is looking at software to help route calls to the closest fire station to the incident, especially on the Travis and Williamson county border where the closest station is sometimes across the county line.

Another nagging problem is staffing. In AFD, vacancies dropped from 94 in the first quarter to 67 in the second quarter thanks to a cadet class, but Vires explained that the department is now back to creating a new hiring list for another class that they hope to have in October.

APD meanwhile has 149 vacancies and an attrition rate that Chacon said has remained elevated since the department lost its contract with the city in December 2017. The result is that two-thirds of the way through the fiscal year, the police department has used 89 percent of its annual overtime budget, which translates to $8.5 million.

“The good thing is, because we have those vacancies, we do experience salary savings,” said Chacon, who explained that the department expects to remain within its overall budget for the year.

Additionally, APD expects to have a cadet class of 80 in June to help fill the vacancies.

Austin EMS Assistant Chief Jasper Brown was unable to attend the meeting and therefore the EMS quarterly update was postponed to June.

By Jessi Devenyns

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

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