Fire response times still a problem as Austin Fire Chief announces retirement

Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr will retire July 1 after spending nine years with the Austin Fire Department. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

“It is with regret, but also with some joy that I announce that I'm leaving this department and this city to go and move back to Fort Lauderdale,” said Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.

Austin's first female fire chief announced Thursday afternoon that she is retiring and moving back to Florida where she started her career.

CBS Austin first reported the news on Wednesday, but Chief Kerr wouldn't comment on the decision before holding a news conference on Thursday.

During the briefing, Chief Kerr talked about some of her accomplishments during the nine years she spent with the Austin Fire Department (AFD). She tops her list with funding and maintaining four-person staffing on all frontline emergency responding vehicles. Another accomplishment is expanding the city’s smoke detector program. 2500 free smoke alarms are distributed and installed each year. Chief Kerr is also proud of increasing the number of female firefighters at AFD from five percent of the workforce to seven and a half percent.

But on Thursday Chief Kerr also talked about some of the challenges AFD still faces as she prepares to retire effective July 1.

Firefighters are in a constant battle against time. From the moment a crew gets a call for help they have eight minutes to get to the scene. After that fires double or even triple in size.

“I don't think we're there yet. It certainly is still a challenge,” said Chief Kerr.

Austin's retiring fire chief knows that as Austin has grown so have response times. Instead of eight minute response times, they can go as high as 13 and 14 minutes. The solution is building more fire stations in southeast, southwest and northwest Austin.

“I've been here nine years and I've been asking for new fire stations every single one of those nine years and we got one and that's the one that's now under construction down in Onion Creek. Only one, and we need five or six more,” said Chief Kerr.

The Fire Chief says the City of Austin has agreed to include more fire stations in a 2018 bond proposal. But that funding initiative would have to be approved by voters.

“It's one of those things that I haven't been able to achieve but I'll be glad to go out knowing that maybe some money will be budgeted and if the bond passes there will be come construction of new stations,” said Chief Kerr.

Chief Kerr also wants more firefighters on the frontline. AFD has been at 150 vacancies, but she thinks before she retires this summer that number will drop to under 100.

“We're slowly whittling down those vacancies and getting our overtime expenditures into what should be a normal range,” said Chief Kerr.

The fire chief says there is no better fire department than AFD. But Fort Lauderdale is where she started her career 33 years ago and for her it's home.

“I've got the beach you know. And the Bahamas not too far away and golfing and bike riding that I do here, as well,” said Chief Kerr.

Chief Kerr will retire July 1, 2018 and she will receive her AFD retirement pay and benefits. She will be heading east to be the Fire Chief for Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue.

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