Life or Death: Austin Fire response times differ dramatically across the city

Map showing percentage of responses in 8 minutes or less for first-in unit (Courtesy: Austin Fire Department's Research & Planning)

For the Austin Fire Department, every minute counts. It's a race against the clock as firefighters battle time--before they ever fight the fire.

"When you get beyond eight minutes the fire not only doubles in size, but it triples and quadruples in size," said Asst. Fire Chief Tom Dodds.

Despite the need to hit that eight minute mark, only seven of Austin's 46 fire stations had average response times of eight minutes or less in 2015.

"You're filled with adrenaline. You're just kind of watching your house go up in flames," said Andrew Lewis, a south Austin resident. "We never thought this would happen. You're not even sure what's going on."

Lewis had lost all concept of time when he took this picture of flames spreading from one side of the duplex to the other. He and his family wish there was more to salvage.

"So much stuff you want," said Lewis.

What the family doesn't realize is that they're lucky this many of their belongings are left.

Lucky because the engine that pulled up to the duplex on Howellwood Way made it to the fire in six minutes. That's two minutes faster than the fire department's goal of getting to your house within eight minutes. And it's so much quicker than the average response time in Lewis's neighborhood which is 10 minutes and 42 seconds.

"10:42 is much higher than what we'd like to see," said Asst. Chief Dodds. "We are experiencing challenges. It shows the need for additional fire stations and fire response."

Dodds knows how fast flames spread with no one there to force them back.

"If we can get there in 8 minutes or less we can hold it and substantially limit the amount of damage," said AFD's Chief of Staff.

"Time matters," said Bob Nicks, President of the Austin Firefighters Association.

He mapped where the fire department isn't meeting its eight minute goal. You can see the full map embedded at the bottom of this story.

"The only place we're meeting that goal, our stated goal, is in these dark green areas you see here. The light green and all the other colors we're not meeting our goal," said Nicks.

Think of Austin as a wagon wheel. The hub is fine, but further out on the spokes response times get progressively worse.

Shady Hollow, Onion Creek, Moore's Crossing and Canyon Creek are some of the neighborhoods Nicks listed as having the city's poorest response times. They are shaded in purple on the map which means less than 50% of the time firefighters are getting to an emergency within eight minutes. In Shady Hollow it's less than 5% of the time.

Response times are being slowed by a city that's one of the fastest growing in America. Sold signs are being planted in newly annexed areas that stretch the city's boundaries and the fire department's limits. Traffic has gotten so thick, sirens can't cut a path through it.

"If it's hard for you to get around the city, it's hard for us to get around the city," said Asst. Chief Dodds.

"One of the worst examples is Travis Country," said Nicks. "I am certain that if you polled them, they would be unaware of the level of risk that they have in their neighborhood."

So KEYE TV showed some long-time residents their spot on the 2014 Standard of Coverage map.

"Red, second worst," said Kathryn Buys. "That's kind of scary."

Red on the map signifies that eight minute response times happen 50% to 69% of the time.

"I just didn't know," said Richard Critchfield. "Oh wow! That's not good. We really do need a fire station here."

But despite Austin's tremendous growth, it's been six years since the city opened a new fire station.

"One in 2007 and one in 2010," said Asst. Chief Dodds.

Stations cost an average of $8 million to $10 million to build and equip.

"Remember a park and a library and a swimming pool compete with a fire station," said Asst. Chief Dodds. "The biggest hurdle for us is the cost of a fire station, is getting funding, that's our biggest hurdle."

A lack of funding meant Shady Hollow grew to have one of the worst response times in the city. The Standard of Coverage map puts the average response time at 12:53. Relief will come later this year when AFD takes over an already built ESD station. But further east in Onion Creek, ground still hasn't broken on a station that saw funding go through in 2013.

AFD union leaders think the city needs five or six more stations. Since it typically takes three to four years to build a station after funding is approved, response times are expected to tick even higher.

For the Lewis family, a quick response shows the significance of each second.

"We opened the door and saw smoke," said Lewis. "There were big flames in the back."

With the help of family and friends, the driveway of their south Austin duplex is slowly being covered with clothes, baby items and furniture that aren't too heavily damaged.

What may not seem like a lot, instead could be just enough to help the family get back on its feet.

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