Austin Fire Department says traffic, construction affecting response time

Austin firefighters are struggling to meet their response time goal and say traffic is to blame.

“Eight minutes, 90 percent of the time. That's our goal,” said Austin Fire Department Division Chief Palmer Buck. 

There are two reasons the department strives to respond to emergencies in eight minutes or less.

“What we know is that four to six minutes after your heart stops beating, you start having brain damage. So that's one of the times. We also know a fire doubles in size every minute,” Buck said. 

In May, the department presented data showing they were only meeting that goal in one city council district, District 9. 

“It’s a difficult goal to achieve and we're not meeting it in a lot of areas, but we're getting really close. But we've seen our times starting to slip and slip and we can usually point to traffic congestion,” said Buck. 

To make matters worse, the Austin Fire Department trucks currently do not have computers with real-time traffic.

“We can't, at this time, adapt to a road that's closed or a road that has traffic backed up on it for whatever reason,” Buck said. 

According to Buck, the department used to be able to capture traffic lights, turning them green to clear out congestion and allow their trucks through the intersection more quickly, but that system didn't age well and is no longer working in several locations.

“So, we're looking at a newer system to coordinate with Austin traffic, the vision that we would be able to capture more lights,” said Buck. 

As the city grows up and out, they've worked to add new stations to decrease response times. Buck said they plan to build five new ones in the next five years. Still, the increasing number of high rises downtown presents a new challenge.

“That also is something we're trying to factor in as we move forward to the future. Do we need to add more stations downtown to meet not only that horizontal travel distance but that vertical travel distance to get to patients and get to fires?” Buck said. 

Firefighters’ traffic woes are amplified by constant construction projects.

“With the 183 and I-35 construction, we've seen a huge increase in response times as a result of that,” said Buck. 

New safety measures, like bike lanes and concrete medians, make it tough for other drivers to clear a path for fire trucks and sometimes prevent first responders from being able to get around other vehicles.

“Those curbs, those cement islands, don't allow us to easily navigate into oncoming lanes to get around traffic at a light,” Buck said.                 

The department is experimenting with using narrower trucks that can more easily maneuver in tight spaces, but it's a tradeoff. Less room means they can't carry as much water or gear on each call.