SNOWMASS VILLAGE - A group of Snowmass Village firefighters have raised concerns regarding the work environment at the department, talk of hiring a new position and the firing of an individual with a learning disability.
The concerns are outlined in a guest opinion in this edition of the Snowmass Sun (see page 14) written by firefighter/paramedic Jake Andersen. Andersen explained the nature of two grievances filed with the board of directors earlier this year, accusing Fire Chief Steve Sowles' management of creating "a hostile working environment" that has led to high turnover in the department, which in turn has impacted public safety.
Eight new people have been hired in the past two years, according to Andersen, who is vice president of the Snowmass Firefighters Union Local 4327, a noncollective bargaining entity that does not negotiate pay or benefits.
Firefighters and paramedics "are good at what they do because they're team members," Andersen said in an interview last week. "If the team is consistently broken up every couple months by someone leaving and someone new coming in, we're not as good as we could possibly be."
Turnover is also a problem because of the time it takes to train new employees and for them to learn the area, Andersen said.
Bill Boineau, president of the board of directors of the fire district, said he does not see a safety concern, citing the prior experience of most of the department's hires and the low number of calls it responds to compared with larger districts.
Boineau also doesn't consider the turnover rate abnormally high. In a resort market, "a lot of businesses have people who leave and go back to the real world," Boineau said.
Boineau also said the recent departure of staff members was unrelated to district management, including getting married or going back to school.
"We can spell out why each person has left, and there hasn't been, from what I understand, a labor-relations issue," Boineau said.
As for Andersen's description of the work environment, Boineau said that "there could be something there."
When an environment has "multiple type-A personalities, you're going to have a little friction," Boineau said.
Following an executive session on Feb. 27, the board released a statement saying that the grievances filed did not fall under the district's grievance policy.
The firefighters' complaints don't qualify as grievances because they don't concern a disciplinary action, Boineau said. He also took issue with the fact that the firefighters didn't sign their names on both grievances, saying, "I cannot talk to a blank piece of paper."
"They shouldn't be afraid of retaliation," he said.
"You can't grieve management policies," according to district policy, Chief Steve Sowles said. "If you grieve a disciplinary action, that's entitled under the policy."
Andersen said it has been frowned upon in the past when firefighters tried to contact the board directly and that some firefighters don't speak up because they're afraid of retaliation.
"The only way we're supposed to do that is through our grievance procedure, which is what we were attempting to do, which is what they shot down," Andersen said.
The board also denied a request to involve a third-party mediator in discussions between the firefighters and management, stating that it would schedule a meeting between staff and at least one board member.
"One of the real issues that we're really struggling with is communication," Andersen said. "Which is why the mediator was requested, because I'm perfectly willing to speak with the board members, but not everybody is because they kind of see how things go, even with the grievance. It was not well received."
That is also an example of the lack of open communication with management, which is also one of the firefighters' key concerns, according to Andersen.
Sowles said the firefighters should be talking with their captains, or they can express their concerns to him. He said he hasn't retaliated against anyone in the past.
"I have an open-door policy," he said.
Although Andersen said this was no longer a concern, Boineau said the current issues go back to a request from some firefighters to switch to a 48-hour-on, 96-hour-off work schedule. That request came up because it would be a better schedule for staff members who have to commute long distances, Andersen said.
"I can't afford to have them not be around," Boineau said. "We wouldn't get projects done. ... When there is a big call, you're not getting those people back."
"It has nothing to do with the grievance," Andersen said. "That's not the issue. The way that was handled by management is sort of a symptom of what the guys are upset with."
Sowles also believed the schedule had to do with the discontent among staff.
"There's some people really pushing that issue, and they're throwing out a lot of red herrings," he said.
Another issue outlined in Andersen's piece was the termination of firefighter Shawn Foster, who has been diagnosed with a learning disability. Andersen said a discrimination complaint has been filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Foster did not respond to an email sent by this newspaper. Boineau said he couldn't comment on the circumstances because it is a personnel matter.
Sowles said that because of privacy rules, the firefighters don't have all the information about that termination.
A date has not been set for a meeting between the board and staff members, although Boineau said he was working on it and had hoped to set it for late March, when the next captains' meeting is scheduled.