Fire department change is official, but splits City Council

Published 10:26 am Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Austin City Council once again split the vote 4-3 in favor of changing the city’s fire department scheduling. The scheduling change is effective immediately.

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.

The council voted during its public meeting Monday to allow Fire Chief Mickey Healey to switch the Austin Fire Department’s schedule from an alternating night- and day-shift schedule to a 24 hours on/48 hours off schedule. Once again, council members Janet Anderson, Steve King, Judy Enright and Jeremy Carolan voted in favor of changing the schedule, while Michael Jordal, Roger Boughton and Jeff Austin voted against the motion.

Council members said they heard plenty of feedback from the public on the issue, with Boughton calling the switch “the most contentious issue that [he’s] been involved with over the past two years.”

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Full-time firefighters operate on a nine-day schedule. They were required to report in for 10 hours, or from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., for three days, followed by three days of 14-hour shifts from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then three days off. Part-time firefighters work under a similar nine-day schedule, as they’re split into three tiers and called in based on which shift their group is assigned.

Healey and other firefighters recently told city officials and council members a recent increase of injuries and vacation time will leave the department undermanned toward the end of March, with only one full-time firefighter at the city firehouse for several days unless some employees were paid to work overtime. Under a 24/48 schedule, full-time employees work 24 hours straight starting at 7 a.m., then have two days off. Part-time employees will be the first to get called on their scheduled day, then fall into second- and third-group rankings for the next two days.

Austin told other members he was concerned about the way the issue was handled, accusing city staff and council members of ushering the issue through the last work session without discussion, and not putting it on a council agenda in order to avoid media scrutiny.

“I feel we were blind-sided and railroaded when it came to this issue,” he said. “That’s never happened during my time on the council.”

Healey had brought the switch to council work sessions several times during his three-year tenure in town, but the council refused to take up the issue before this year. He told council members two weeks ago the switch wouldn’t cost the city extra money, wouldn’t require more firefighters and would decrease potential overtime situations.

“I’m asking for the council to aid me in serving the people of Austin,” Healey told the council.

Boughton expressed concern over the switch, asking Healey to repeat how much the move would cost the city and whether the fire department would lose productive hours under the switch, which City Administrator Jim Hurm previously cited as a concern.

King, Healey, residents at the meeting and other council members said the switch wouldn’t affect firefighter productivity, as firefighters were still working the same amount of hours doing the same activities at the fire station.

“You cannot add productivity without adding bodies,” King said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said he supported the council allowing Healey to run his department, but said the council could always revisit the issue later this year.