Archived Story

Our Opinion: City council should trust the fire chief

Published 11:22am Wednesday, March 6, 2013

As a rule, city council members are not elected because of their expertise in specific subjects. Council members are not, for example, expected to understand and manage municipal accounting procedures. They don’t need to have degrees in civil engineering and no one expects them to decide how to build a road or bridge. Instead, the council sets budgets and broad policy expectations and leaves the details to staff experts. It’s time the Austin City Council take the same approach to the city’s fire department.

In the latest chapter of a seemingly never-ending debate, council members this week considered weighing in on how city firefighters’ schedules should be managed. The question of scheduling firefighters is undoubtedly important. As a group, they’re expected to be ready for action 24/7, and working out the details of how to accomplish that with limited budgets and resources is a difficult task. And it is precisely because it is a difficult, technical task that it is ridiculous for the council to be involved. The city has a fire chief who is, by all accounts, very good at his job. There is no reason not to think he can build effective staff schedules. So it makes no sense for the council to be considering the question of whether firefighters should work a so-called 10/14 schedule or a 24-48 schedule. The chief should decide.

We expect the question will come before the council again in a couple of weeks. At that time, the correct response would be for the council to do the following: Tell the chief that as long as his department lives within its budget and is prepared to carry out its duties, he has the council’s full confidence. To do anything else is to undercut the chief’s authority.

There is no reason to think members of the city council — except for the one member who actually is a firefighter — have any expertise on firefighter scheduling. The council needs to know how to set policy, and ought to stick to its own job, rather than meddling in the details of departmental management.

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