'It's going to be a violent summer': Austin shooting highlights need for downtown EMS unit, union rep says
A mass shooting that left 14 people injured highlighted the need for a more robust emergency preparedness plan as people venture into public spaces
Katie Hall and Kara Carlson
AUSTIN — Austin-Travis County EMS medics struggled to reach the victims early Saturday after a downtown Austin mass shooting on East Sixth Street, and the head of the EMS union worries that the same problem could happen again without a dedicated downtown team.
Medics took four wounded people to the hospital via ambulance early that morning, and Austin officers shuttled six other victims in police vehicles, EMS officials said. Three victims got to the hospital in private vehicles.
"We had a lot of trouble getting our command vehicles and ambulances where they needed to be — the streets were blocked off, the crowds were so heavy, and there was so much chaos," said Selena Xie, Austin-Travis County EMS union president. "That's why the police have mounted units (on horseback), because that is much easier to maneuver than a vehicle."
"We should never have police officers transporting victims," Xie said. "But because we don't have an established downtown group, it makes it really hard to get enough ambulances in and also get them into a position where they can transport patients."
Still, Xie and Austin fire Battalion Chief Thayer Smith said officers reacted quickly.
"Transporting in police cars is not normal, but given the situation last night, officers did a great job to get the scene under control and get those folks to care," Smith said.
Austin medics have been asking the city this year to designate a group of medics and EMS vehicles specifically for downtown.
"We know that it's going to be a violent summer — we've already seen violence increase," Xie said. "That's purely because we're coming out of the pandemic, and there's going to be a lot of activity."
Firefighters also responded to the scene early Saturday.
"We had two night (fire) inspectors who were out last night, right on scene at one of the bars where the the scene occurred," Smith said. "They were immediately able to come out and start giving updates on the number of victims."
Due to crowds and traffic, downtown Austin is more difficult for first-responders to navigate than other parts of Austin, and Xie is concerned that transport issues could continue to be a problem.
"It's one of those things where, for example, if we know we're going to have a hurricane, we prepare for it," Xie said. "We know there's going to be violence in the summer downtown, and we just aren't really prepared with a specialized plan for that. We've been suggesting putting specialized units in place, so it's a little frustrating to see it happen."
To further complicate the problem, Austin-Travis County EMS is understaffed, Xie said. The department saw a record number of medics leave during the pandemic, and the city is about 100 medics short of the 600 medics they're budgeted to have.
"Working in a pandemic does not make the job more fun, and it definitely pushed a lot of people over the edge into much earlier retirement than they had planned," she said.