AFD supporters say vacancies, overtime safety risk for firefighters

There are 130 vacancies at the Austin Fire Department. The vacancies have led to plenty of overtime for firefighters. (CBS Austin)

Firefighters in Austin are mourning the death of San Antonio firefighter Scott Deem in a massive fire overnight. His death came hours after Austin City Council approved $3.5 million for Austin Fire Department overtime and vacancies, which supporters call a safety issue.

Bob Nicks, an AFD battalion chief, is also the president of the Austin Firefighters' Association. "We won't forget. We're all San Antonio firefighters today," he said. Nicks says Deem's death highlights the dangers of the job. Nicks is concerned about how stretched thin Austin firefighters are, because of 130 vacancies in the department. The vacancies have led to plenty of overtime for firefighters.

City council remedied the problem for now, by agreeing to dip into the city reserves for the money. "It's something that has to happen," Nicks said. "The department is running behind."

District 2 City Council Member Delia Garza was among those in a 7-4 vote who approved the move. "It has everything to do with safety. It's about our staffing levels," she said. Garza was once an Austin firefighter, and is the daughter of a retired San Antonio firefighter. The death in San Antonio hits close to her heart. "Me and my family, my sisters, my mother were very lucky that my father came home every day after his shift," she said.

Thursday, city council members were considering moving from a standard four-person fire crew to a three-person fire crew in an attempt to save money. It's something Nicks says would have jeopardized firefighters. "What some people don't realize, sometimes that make policy decisions about cutting the fire department, is realities of what we do," he said. Garza agreed, pointing to the death in San Antonio, and a department that is staffing firefighters at that recommended four-person level. "They were at that standard and even doing everything right, they lost a firefighter," she said.

Austin firefighters may be staffing San Antonio fire houses during Deem's funeral, to allow their brothers and sisters of SAFD to mourn that day.