Cooling the fire

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Firefighters Jason Chandler with Troy Miller backing him up, use a hydraulic spreader to take a door off a car during training Saturday morning behind Midtown Towing during a training exercise. Chandler and Miller along with two others will be taking their state test next weekend. - Eric Johnson/

The Austin Fire Department moves on from past controversy

The Austin Fire Department has seen its share of controversy in the last decade, but one thing is clear — the firefighters want to move on.

With Chief Mickey Healey taking over the department last July came many changes at the fire station.

But one attempted adjustment, which was shot down by the City Council in May, was a scheduling change that sparked debate. Despite the roadblock, Healey and his men are forging forward to rebuild the department.

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“This department has had such turmoil, such a hostile history,” Healey said. “We just can’t seem to turn the page and let it go.

“We hope this department can pull itself out of the turmoil of the past and it’ll be known as the current Austin Fire Department. Nobody wants to go back to the past.”

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey goes over how a training exercise on extraction will go Saturday morning behind Midtown Towing. - Eric Johnson/


One aspect of moving forward includes bringing all firefighters up to national certification standards. Healey said the AFD — which has existed for more than a century — has never met national training standards. Healey is working to remedy that, and by mid-June he expects one-third of the firefighters will be up to state and national standards.

By the end of 2013, the whole department should be appropriately trained, which will allow the AFD to compare its performance with other departments throughout the country.

“They’re doing very well,” Healey said. “These guys had good skills; we’re just adding some of the current techniques into it.”

In order for the men to stay fresh on their skills, they will each need 24 hours of training each year, he said.

Chris Grunewald, AFD engineer, is one who will be certified by mid-June. He said the training has improved efficiency and technique.

“(Healey) is looking out for the liabilities of the city,” Grunewald said. “It’s two-fold. We provide better service and are more efficient.”

Healey said he has been trying to schedule training so the part-time staff can interact more with the full-timers. Camaraderie is important, he said, and encouraging all firefighters to train together — even though they don’t always respond to the same calls — encourages that bond.

Part-time firefighter Terry Hughes said training and Healey’s general management style have improved morale, organization and emergency response tactics.

“The interaction between the part-timers and full-timers has increased and improved the general attitude,” he said. “We’re more prompt and we have a better response for (emergency) pages.”

The firefighters are excited about the goal’s Healey has set. Grunewald said Healey’s passion makes it easy to be enthusiastic.

“We’re excited,” Grunewald said. “We have goals. He wants us to be the best firefighters we can be.”


When Healey began as Austin Fire Chief, he came in with a three-year plan. Included in that was a goal to establish a more thorough command structure.

Under the current structure, there are 32 firefighters who report to one commander, and that commander reports to the chief. Healey is hoping to establish a chain of command that includes three commanders, one for each shift.

AFD used to have a three-commander structure, but as people retired, the positions weren’t filled. In April 2008, talks began between the department and City Council to switch to a structure with one chief and one assistant chief. However, in July 2009, council members voted 6-1 to suspend the assistant fire chief process.

Healey said the downside to a chief and assistant chief structure with no commanders is that one more full-time firefighter would need to be hired to maintain the policy of three people on staff per shift.

“Command structure with a known superior helps everything out,” Healey said. “It’s similar to what police agencies do when they have officers under a sergeant.”

The AFD and Austin Police Department (APD) are both paramilitary organizations that require a chain of command. The APD has several different ranks, including chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant and patrolman.

“They have leadership in their staff to achieve organization,” Grunewald said of the APD. “The most you want is one guy supervising seven guys. We have over 30 people … with one chief and one commander.

“If we want our fire department to progress, we have to have a command structure.”

Healey said communication, teamwork and efficiency would increase if he had three commanders as opposed to one. When a shift doesn’t have a supervisor, it can lead to confusion at emergency scenes and a slower response time, he said. Also, miscommunication would be less likely if Healey had one person from each shift reporting to him, he said.

Healey said the City Council seems open to discussion; he will be presenting the options to council members at Monday night’s work session.

“It sounds like there is support to discussing the establishment of three commanders,” he said. “If we go with three commanders, we need to have a proper testing process to make sure we’re getting the best candidates for those positions.”


Above anything, the firefighters want the citizens of Austin to see the AFD for what it is now — not what it has been in the past — and Healey is helping that become a reality, Grunewald said.

“He listens to us and we listen to him,” Grunewald said. “Our morale has definitely improved (in the last year) — anyone who comes down here and witnesses the fire department and our services would agree.”

Hughes agreed with Grunewald, saying Healey has all the firefighters’ support.

“We support the chief in the improvements he’s been able to make in the department, and we’d like to be able to see him run his own department,” Hughes said. “We don’t believe the City Council is qualified to run the department.”