Austin firefighters will likely begin to respond to medical and fire calls in Williamson County — and vice versa — in a year or two, according to a deal approved by Austin City Council on Thursday.
The vote came after intense resistance from the Austin firefighters union, which for months has been urging the council to delay voting on the agreement until they could get Williamson County firefighters to agree to follow their protocols at fire scenes.
Union President Bob Nicks said he is happier with the final version of the deal, but he is still wary. The agreement the council approved still allows Williamson County departments to follow different procedures but it makes a commitment to eventually move toward one set of rules.
"The Austin Fire Department is the largest urban department that hasn't had a line-of-duty death in the past four years," Nicks told the American-Statesman on Wednesday. "We came up with a standard duty procedure that is extremely safe. For (Austin Fire) Chief Baker to promote the use of multiple operating systems, it's unsafe."
It's unclear when the agreement will take effect. The Austin City Council made enough changes to the document Thursday that some fire chiefs in neighboring departments were concerned they may need to take the agreement back to their governing boards for another vote.
Officials have estimated that, if all goes according to plan, the deal will take effect around August 2020. Nicks estimated it would be more like August 2021.
The Sam Bass Fire Department in Brushy Creek is not part of this agreement.
Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker said he understands the union's concerns about different protocols. At Thursday's meeting, he said he would have an expert who helped author Austin's protocols participate in the process of writing one system for all departments.
"I hear and I understand the concerns from our local union about the operating systems, and I can respect that," Baker said Thursday.
The agreement involves the emergency service districts of Travis and Williamson counties as well as the cities of Austin, Leander, Cedar Park, Round Rock and Georgetown. Nicks also voiced concerns that Austin firefighters — who previously have not responded to calls in Williamson County — could be spreading themselves too thin.
"We're talking about forming a bi-county agreement," Nicks said. "We're talking about firefighters in Austin maybe going to Georgetown. We need to study that before we do it, and it hasn't been done."
However, Nicks said the union does believe that an agreement with Williamson County needs to be created and is ultimately a good thing.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents a portion of Austin that extends into Williamson County, said earlier this week that an agreement with Williamson County is long overdue.
"This city goes into a second county — substantially goes into a second county. ... We have to participate with the region as a partner," Flannigan said at a council work session Tuesday.
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