Few Aspen volunteers may soon lead to paid AFD firefighters | AspenTimes.com

Few Aspen volunteers may soon lead to paid AFD firefighters

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine's department currently has 33 volunteers but he said his ideal number is 42. His department is looking at hiring paid firefighters.

A dwindling number of new volunteers and aging coterie of current volunteers is forcing Aspen Volunteer Fire Department officials to consider hiring paid firefighters in the near future, fire officials said Friday.

"It's a tough thing we're facing," said Karl Adam, president of the Aspen Fire Protection District Board. "We're at a crossroads with it."

The district, which relies solely on volunteers, recently conducted its most intense effort to recruit new members, which included advertising, Adam said. And while eight or nine people applied, just three made it through the vetting process, said Rick Balentine, fire chief and one of only two people currently paid in the fire district.

"That's pretty meager," Adam said.

The other paid firefighter is Fire Marshal Parker Lathrop.

The department currently has 33 volunteers, and Balentine said his ideal number is 42. The system continues to work because a higher than average number of those volunteers respond to emergency calls, he said.

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Still, Adam said many volunteers are heading toward retirement age, and with fewer and fewer people to replace them, something's got to give.

"It becomes obvious that's not sustainable," he said.

So Adam and Balentine said they are looking at a future model that features a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters.

"We'll probably go for a mill levy next year" to be able to pay firefighters, Adam said.

Neither Balentine nor Adam said they'd done enough research to know how much the new department model might cost, so they didn't know the size of the mill levy they might seek.

One idea Balentine and Adam support is to combine the fire department, which covers 87 square miles in Pitkin County, with the Aspen Ambulance District. Pitkin County commissioners recently said they were open to the idea of discussing such an option.

However, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Friday that the county would need a detailed plan about what the new department would look like before commissioners could begin to consider it. The fact that the ambulance district is about to build a new $6 million facility across from Aspen Valley Hospital does not mean the combination idea couldn't work in the future, he said.

Being a volunteer firefighter requires a major time commitment, Adam said. New members must take a nine-month course that meets twice a week and must then respond to a certain percentage of calls, he said, which can mean a significant time commitment.

Also, with modern fire suppression efforts, many volunteers don't often get the chance to actually fight fires, Adam said.

Finally, Balentine pointed out that the average age in Aspen is 44 years old, which is a year older than the average age of the oldest state, Maine, he said. So despite offering health and retirement benefits, the number of volunteers continues to dwindle, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

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