Let the firefighters decide

Published 3:51 pm Monday, May 9, 2011

Daily Herald editorial

Austin City Council members will get a test of their willpower at an upcoming work session when they are officially advised about a proposal to change the way firefighters’ work shifts are scheduled. In the past, the council has been faulted for getting too closely involved in the details of running the fire and police departments; this issue of scheduling will be a chance for the council to trust its professional staff to know what is best.

Fire Chief Mickey Healey told the council’s Fire Committee last week that he wants to change the way firefighters are scheduled. In his judgment, the change — to a schedule in which full-time firefighters are on duty for 24 hours and then off for 48 — would be better for the firefighters and betters for the city. It would have been a great chance for the Fire Committee to back up its new chief by letting him proceed. Instead, the committee forwarded the matter to the full council.

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While it is important that council members know what is going on in city government, it’s also important that they know the limitations of their responsibilities – which stop considerably short of directly managing the fire department. As tempting as it might be to exert authority over every detail of every city department, what Austin residents need the council to do is set overall policy and hire good people to implement those policies.

City council members shouldn’t personally design bridges or operate a complex water system. Neither should they tell their fire chief how to run his department. We hope that, when the full council is told about the scheduling proposal, its reaction is something along the lines of, “We trust you to make the right decision.”