Austin Fire Department

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Two robots, Wall-E and Eve, are helping the Austin Fire Department incorporate technology into firefighting so that they can ultimately assess situations in advance of their human firefighting counterparts.

The two robots are micro-technical ground robots the department obtained from the federal Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. Wall-E and Eve, named after the Pixar movie and both optimized for use in tunnels, communicate with each other while exploring their surroundings, AFD Lt. Lyzz Donelson said.

“When we send our robots down into these tunnels, or perhaps a confined space or a building collapse, it’s possible that we could use these robots to push in further than a firefighter could,” Donelson said. “We can use the cameras on these robots to glean information from the surroundings.”

The firefighters started training with the robots by making them do simple tasks, such as moving back and forth. Now, the firefighters can make the robots find mannequins, retrieve pipes from them and place those pipes into buckets.

Most officers haven’t had trouble operating the robots, Donelson said.

“The controllers are relatively intuitive,” Donelson said. “For some of our team members who have a lot of experience playing video games or operating remote-control toys, a lot of it’s really similar.”

Because robots can go places firefighters can’t, the possibilities for their use are endless, especially in search-and-rescue missions, Donelson said. 

“I joined 12 years ago, and at the time, this wasn’t even something on our radar,” Donelson said. “I joined to fight fire and to help people in emergencies with my hands, so to have this opportunity to start using technology out there is very exciting.”

While the department continues to research situations in which robots could be useful, Gilbert Rodriguez, electrical engineering senior and member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, said one important factor to consider is that robots can operate in different environments than most human beings.

“I could see a huge benefit from firefighters using autonomous robots since it makes it safer for them to operate in disaster areas,” Rodriguez said. “It also brings forth huge design challenges because the robots need to operate in extreme conditions, such as the heat of a fire.”

Donelson said one possibility for robot development is giving them the ability to tell those who are trapped that help is on the way.

Public health junior Yana Maskov said she would be relieved to interact with any help, human or robot, if she were trapped in a dangerous situation. 

“I would actually feel OK, and I would trust [the robot] because if you’re about to die and you have no options left, then I would do anything,” Maskov said.

Donelson said innovations such as this are a rarity in the firefighting business.

“It’s not very often that changes come along in the fire service that can fundamentally alter the way we approach an emergency scene,” Donelson said. “The possibilities of using robotics to take firefighters out of harm’s way, while at the same time helping us access our patients much faster and safer — that’s groundbreaking.”

Fire extinguished at DoubleTree Hotel downtown

The Austin Fire Department extinguished a fire at the DoubleTree Hotel on 15th St., between Lavaca and Guadalupe streets downtown Friday morning. 

AFD officials said the fire started in the kitchen on the bottom floor, and smoke made its way up to the top floors through the hotel’s ventilation system.

More than a dozen fire crews responded to the scene. There were no injuries reported. 

No injuries were reported after a deck at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house caught fire Tuesday morning. 

According to Randy Elmore, Austin Fire Department public information officer, AFD was notified of a black column of smoke coming from behind a wall near West 24th Street around 7:40 a.m. Tuesday. When fire crews arrived at the scene, they found a large wooden deck on fire at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, which is located at 2400 Leon St.

Elmore said fire crews extinguished the fire within three minutes and prevented it from spreading to nearby structures. According to Elmore, the fire was an accident because a fire pit at the house was too close to the wooden deck. Elmore said the total damages are estimated to be around $2,500.

J.D. Swancoat, the fraternity’s external vice president, said the deck was being built in the house’s backyard for an upcoming event.

“Our preliminary findings indicate this morning at about 7:30 am embers from an outdoor fireplace apparently were blown by heavy winds onto fresh lumber being used as part of a temporary deck installation for a mid November celebration,” Swancoat said in an email. “The very smokey fire occurred in the fraternity’s backyard and caused minimal damage to a wooden deck. At no time did the fire touch the fraternity house.”

Another balcony deck fire was also reported at Parker Lane around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday morning because of an improperly discarded cigarette. AFD personnel said strong winds could have played a role in both fires and advised residents to take proper precautions when disposing of cigarettes and extinguishing grills or fireplace fires. 

“As we advised last night, strong winds can quickly accelerate fires with improperly discarded cigarettes and [barbecue or fireplace] ashes,” AFD tweeted Tuesday morning.

The Austin Police Department has ordered protective equipment and outlined a quarantine response in case of an Ebola outbreak in Austin, according to a training announcement sent to officers.

The announcement, which was sent out Oct. 6, outlines officers’ responsibilities at the scene of a quarantine and specifies how they can access personal protective equipment.

According to the announcement, the Travis County Health and Human Services Department or the Texas Department of State Health Services is responsible for declaring a quarantine in case of an Ebola outbreak. Both organizations can declare a quarantine of any person or area. Anyone who tries to enter or exit a quarantine area faces a third-degree felony charge, and an officer may use “reasonable force” to secure the area and prevent people from accessing or leaving it, the announcement said.

The announcement does not say whether officers are allowed inside the home of an Ebola patient, but Assistant Chief Brian Manley said they may be called to the scene in the event of a quarantine.  

Manley said if APD were called to enforce a quarantine order, officers would act in a supporting role to serve any notices and make sure the quarantine order was enforced. 

“APD is in a support role when we respond to a medical call with [the Austin Fire Department] or EMS, and it would be the same if responding to a possible Ebola case,” Manley said. 

On Friday, President William Powers Jr. announced in an email that a UT student had self-quarantined him or herself after being on the same flight as a nurse with Ebola. Powers said the student would be staying home from class at his or her private residence. According to the University, the student will not return to school until Nov. 3. 

Manley said APD works closely with other departments to determine how to respond to possible infectious disease outbreaks.

“We are in daily communication with the health department, EMS and fire department to coordinate our efforts and train our officers on response protocols,” Manley said. 

Officers typically carry latex gloves with them but would also wear standard equipment on the scene of a quarantine, including a face mask, gloves and protective eyewear, the announcement said. 

APD has ordered personal protective equipment for its personnel, but the announcement instructs officers to ask EMS staff for any equipment they do not have. The Austin Fire Department will also carry extra masks and eyewear on its units, and officers can call for additional protective equipment if necessary.

According to Manley, APD is still monitoring the situation and tracking the number of Ebola cases in the state.

“This situation is constantly evolving, and the information is being passed to our officers as it develops,” Manley said. “There are many potential situations, but we can only plan for what we know today. As new information develops we will respond accordingly.”

Students from UT’s Greek community planned a march to the Tower on Thursday in protest of a new plan by city officials to reduce West Campus event and sound ordinance violations, but the protest was rescheduled hours before its start for Sept. 25.

According to Austin Fire Department Lt. Brad Price, the plan requires organizations that want to hold events to apply for a permit through the Austin Center for Events at least 21 days in advance, as well as submit a site plan detailing the makeup of the property and a map of the event site or household. Price said the 21-day notice requirement will go into effect on Oct. 1. The new plan would also put limits on live music events in West Campus.

Price said he was unsure how the plan would affect Round Up, a Greek community event held in the spring. According to Price, the new application process is being implemented in response to the department’s increased workload and issues it sees in upholding safety codes. He said the new plan will allow for more coordination between city agencies. 

APD and AFD officials held a meeting with representatives from fraternities, sororities and co-ops in West Campus on Sept. 3 to inform students of the new plan. 

According to a Facebook event page for the protest, the event was moved to next week to increase participation.

Student Government President Kori Rady said he thinks the new ordinance will negatively affect student life in West Campus. 

“I think with the unique environment West Campus has currently, having the sound ordinance and the changes proposed would take away from the enjoyment of living in that area,” Rady said.

Students have created an online petition to protest the plan and keep live music in West Campus. The petition suggests alternative ways to increase compliance with sound ordinances, such as earlier outdoor noise curfews and noise plans. The petition has received more than 2,500 signatures.

Edwin Qian, Interfraternity Council president, said the council is working to resolve its chapters’ issues with the plan with the City Council.

“I think if they are going to enforce it, we’re obviously going to see a lot less parties,” Qian said. “We’re obviously going to see people getting pretty upset about it.”

-Additional reporting by Eleanor Dearman

A fire early Monday morning forced 32 residents to evacuate the Walnut Run apartment complex in North Campus. 

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Update (6:00 p.m.): The shelter provided by the Red Cross at the Recreational Sports Center officially shut down around 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon because no more students had come to utilize its services, according to volunteer Bob Stephens. 

Stephens said students affected by the fire had found temporary housing with friends or family, and Student Emergency Services made sure that the three students who checked into the shelter Monday morning had places to stay that night.

Original story: A fire at an apartment complex north of campus forced 32 residents, including students, to evacuate from their housing early Monday morning. 

According to Austin Fire Department spokeswoman Michelle Tanzola, the fire started in a second floor apartment around 2:30 a.m. Monday at the Walnut Run complex on 3202 Helms St. near Speedway and 32nd streets. 

A total of 18 apartment units were affected, and the fire was extinguished around 3 a.m. Firefighters evacuated both the main apartment complex and the two buildings next door.

Management graduate student Suho Han said he was in the apartment right below where the fire started. 

“I woke up around 2:30, and it sounded like popcorn popping, so I looked out the window..and [there was] fire on the roof of the balcony, and embers coming down” Han said. “I got up, put on my shorts...and grabbed my keys and my wallet. We got outside, and the fire was going up the wall.” 

According to Han, firefighters arrived on the scene fairly quickly.

“Once the fire department came, they told us to get across the street,” Han said. “It took about 20 minutes for the firefighters to put out the fire, but then it came back a little bit.”

Han said his apartment was severely damaged, but was told he might be able to go back later in the day and gather a few more of his belongings.

“It’s all trash now,” Han said. “I’m probably going to stay at my friend’s house until I can find somewhere else.” 

Students were evacuated to the Recreational Sports Center, where a temporary shelter was set up by the American Red Cross of Central Texas.  

Bob Stephens, one of the Red Cross volunteers. said the shelter was set up around 6 a.m. Monday morning. At press time, only 3 students were registered to stay at the shelter, but Stephens said more students are expected to come by tonight. Stephens said he expected most students would stay with friends or family. 

“We’re providing sleeping cots, blankets, a comfort kit with personal items, and snacks,” Stephens said. “The Rec Center is providing access to showers.”

Stephens said the shelter is expected to remain open for as long as it is needed by students.

Christa Lopez, Student Emergency Services associate director, said her organization is working to provide emergency funds and other basic necessities for students affected by the fire.

No one was injured, and the cause of the fire is still unknown.

The McCombs School of Business building was evacuated after the Austin Fire Department responded to an alarm at approximately 11 p.m. Monday night.

AFD reported light smoke and an electric odor on the scene.

UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey said the fire was caused when the engine brake on an escalator got stuck. Posey said no injuries were reported. 

EMS graphic for The University of Texas at Austin ambulance
Photo Credit: Jack Mitts | Daily Texan Staff

Emergency response vehicles navigate through traffic on Guadalupe Street with sirens blaring on a regular basis. There’s a chance they’re headed to an urgent scene, but more likely, the barrage of trucks is dealing with something simple — something most students will never hear about — because even in cases of minor incidents, emergency response personnel tend to work together.

When a student is injured on campus and a 911 call is placed, this call triggers a process involving the coordination of two police departments, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service and the Austin Fire Department. Even a minor student injury will catalyze a process dependent on thousands of variables and complex matrices. The student will then likely meet firefighters, EMS workers and a UTPD officer within minutes. 

The first variable that affects the path of a 911 call is geographic — where the call was placed determines who receives it. On-campus landline 911 calls go straight to UTPD, but the majority of emergency requests, made on cell phones, are routed to the nearest city Public Safety Access Point. 

Adam Johnson, acting division chief of Austin-Travis County EMS, said the routing is based on cell phone tower geography. 

“If you hit in one of the areas on campus where you’ll hit a cell phone tower not associated with UT, you’ll be routed to APD,” Johnson said.

Calls about incidents on campus are transferred back to UTPD. 

Once the call has been transferred to the appropriate agency, UTPD dispatchers will ask questions and conference in the Austin Fire Department and EMS, if necessary. To avoid confusion, only one dispatcher asks questions. After a round of initial questioning, AFD or EMS will take over as secondary dispatchers. 

“It’s confusing [for the caller] to have more than one person on the line,” Johnson said. “Typically these are chaotic calls. So we’ll take the lead on the phone — but we work hand in hand [with other agencies].”

The call process and response process as a whole require fluid cooperation between all three agencies. In cases of injury, firemen can often respond faster than EMS workers. In cases of crime, police are required to secure the scene before medical intervention. 

This was the case on Sept. 25, when 22-year-old Chenxi Deng stabbed UT graduate student Li You in the face with a metal fork in the Engineering Sciences Building. 

“We work together as a team, so if somebody’s been stabbed, the ambulance isn’t going to go in until the police have secured the scene,” Johnson said. “We don’t carry weapons.”

Even a hypothetical student falling down stairs would likely result in a response from all three agencies because the fire department has greater resources and usually arrives on the scene before EMS, UTPD Captain Julie Gillespie said.

“If you fell down the stairs, we’re going to respond as police because we want to make a report and know why, but EMS and fire are all responding,” Gillespie said. “If it’s a medical call that comes out, we’re all going to roll.”

Johnson said EMS system deployment relies on the fire department as first responders.

“There are roughly twice as many of them as there are of us,” Johnson said.

For priority-one calls, which include life-threatening conditions such as cardiac arrest, the average EMS response time for incidents on the UT campus was 8 minutes and 15 seconds during the 2012 fiscal year.

In comparison, the Austin Fire Department was on the scene in 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

Once an EMS dispatcher takes the lead in a given emergency call, they will ask a series of questions, and the caller’s answers result in a formulaic determination of how many cars and supervisors to send to the scene. 

Austin-Travis County EMS uses an international system and more than 1,700 different response determinants, including cause of injury and number of people involved in the situation, when responding to an emergency call.

Johnson said EMS dispatchers avoid making intuitive or subjective decisions.

“Our responses are very proscribed, we use a set protocol process,” Johnson said. “We want to have a consistent response, so we try to take as much of the subjectivity — the ‘it doesn’t sound so bad, maybe I won’t send a fire truck’ response — out of the process.”

Similar to the computer-generated responses of EMS, the Austin Fire Department uses the Computer Aided Dispatch system to determine the scope of the response it sends out in a given situation, according to AFD public information officer Michelle Tanzola.

“All buildings of five or more floors are tracked in the CAD system, and [it] will alert our dispatchers when a call has been generated at one of these addresses,” Tanzola said. 

Both firefighters and UTPD are aware of the buildings that might contain hazardous materials.

Gillespie said the campus’ chemistry buildings usually generate a more significant response.

“If it’s Welch, they’re going to send more trucks,” Gillespie said. 

Though EMS and AFD determine responses largely through computers, UTPD personnel largely rely on police standards and training when determining the appropriate response to an emergency call.

“If we get an in-progress call, we’ll usually send two officers, almost no matter what,” Gillespie said. “In our training, what we’re taught is to always have a backup.”

A supervisor might also call for additional police units if the situation presents a risk of escalating danger or involves criminal activity on campus, Gillespie said.

UTPD’s presence in an emergency situation on campus is almost immediate, in large part because the University’s police department’s headquarters are on campus, according to UTPD spokeswoman Cindy Posey.

“With UTPD, it’s a question of blocks, not miles,” Posey said.

Sergeant Ben Dranguet and Senior Police Officer Steve Linsday are members of APD’s Air Support Unit. APD requested a new helicopter to expand the unit’s operations and aid in public safety missions.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Austin Police Department has requested a brand new helicopter to help fight crime and lend a hand to Austin Fire Department.

APD officials asked City Council for a new helicopter June 21 to use in land pursuits and to provide the fire department with aid for water drops. If the request is granted, the $3.7 million-plus Eurocopter will be the third helicopter owned by APD, accompanied by a model from 2001 and a military helicopter from 1969.

The police department asked Austin City Council to write a letter of intent to reserve a spot in the production line, and if approved, the helicopter would arrive about a year after the request is made.

David Carter, chief of staff of APD, said the city of Austin would be better off with this style of helicopter, because it has the ability to help serve a number of different purposes.

“I think the city of Austin needs this different style of helicopter,” Carter said. “It will address the wild land fire issues, such as the Bastrop fires. It will help the police with managing pursuits and just day-to-day police investigations.”

Except for the STAR Flight medical helicopters, which help with highly specialized emergency response services, Austin has no immediate state or federal resources to respond to wildfires and flash floods, Carter said.

“This helicopter will have an overall public safety mission. One message I really want to stress is that this helicopter is different than any other aircraft we have,” Carter said.

A recent government graduate, Alexa Caldwell, has mixed feelings on the request for this state-of-the-art helicopter.

“I support Austin buying this helicopter because it is necessary for emergency response situations,” Caldwell said. “But it seems like, with all of the other budget cuts, a lot of money to spend on the police force.”

Harry Evans, chief of staff of the Austin Fire Department, said the helicopter will allow them to partner with the police force to protect citizens in public safety missions.

“Buying this helicopter is a win-win situation. It will belong to the police department but will have the mission capability for doing water drops,” Evans said.

A firefighter exits the CMB while responding to the fire alarm that went off in the building Thursday evening. The alarm was said to have been set off after a motor in an elevator caught on fire.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Howeth | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin Fire Department responded to a fire alarm in Building B of the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center Thursday evening after smoke was reported from the building.

The alarm was set off after the motor of an elevator caught on fire, said UT Police Department Sgt. Wayne Coffey. No injuries were reported and the building was cleared within the hour.

“There was more smoke than fire,” he said.

The elevators in the building were turned off while UTPD waited for maintenance, Coffey said. Five fire trucks and multiple EMS units were on standby and sections of the streets surrounding the building were closed off, including Whitis Avenue and lanes on Guadalupe Street and Dean Keeton. Multiple fire department units entered the building to investigate the reported fire.

The alarm went off during the dedication of the College of Communication Plaza to legendary journalist and former Longhorn Walter Cronkite, but did not interrupt the ceremony.