Austin City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance requiring most of the city’s fire vehicles to be staffed with a minimum of four people.

Austin, TX, Fire Department

Austin City Council members on Thursday approved an ordinance requiring most of the city’s fire vehicles to be staffed with a minimum of four people, a move decades in the making that supporters say is vital to ensure that first responders are able to act immediately during a critical fire incident.

The rule is meant to keep firefighters safer, but it also allows them to spring into action more quickly during a fire.

Austin fire union President Bob Nicks said state law forbids firefighters from entering a structure that is on fire with only three firefighters. Without four-person staffing, a three-person crew could roll up and be forced to wait for additional units to arrive before getting to work, which could result in more lives and property being lost.

A few department vehicles that are not used in emergency fire response are exempted from the four-person crew rule.

The city began working toward four-person crews in the early 1990s.

Nicks said council members passed an aspirational resolution roughly 10 years ago that called for making four-person staffing the standard by 2019. With the help of a grant in 2012, the department reached the goal earlier than expected.

The ordinance passed Thursday essentially brings into law a policy that was already in practice at the Austin Fire Department.

"The ordinance kind of ensures that we stay there," Nicks said. "We discussed the importance of it with council, and they decided that it is important enough to make it a law."

While the department has been running four-person crews since 2012, staffing shortages over previous years led to concerns that the practice might not have been sustainable.

In August 2017, the council approved a $3.5 million budget increase to cover overtime expenses amid a 124-person deficit.

The Fire Department currently has 91 vacancies, but around 80 cadets are moving through the academy and expected to graduate in early 2019, Nicks said.

"We are at a point where we are getting caught up and we believe we will be able to maintain it going forward," he said.

City Council also mulled concerns that state laws could put a strain on the city’s budget that could force leaders to pull back on four-person staffing if necessary. However, the ordinance includes wiggle room to allow council members to make changes if needed.

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