Aspen Fire Board: No on paid firefighters for now |

Aspen Fire Board: No on paid firefighters for now

The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department building on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Despite pressure from a contingent of firefighters, the Aspen Fire Protection District Board declined Tuesday to begin formally looking into hiring paid firefighters.

“If you ask for a hard decision now, the answer will be no to paid staffing,” board President Karl Adam said. “I am not willing to engage the public when I’m not sure where we’re going with this. A lot more thought needs to be put into this.”

The somewhat contentious discussion at Tuesday’s board meeting was prompted by the presence of a group of volunteer firefighters who were involved with producing or support a report that urges Aspen Fire to convert to a department with a combination of volunteers and paid firefighters.

That committee’s report on an improved operational plan — issued in April ­— urges the board to hire eight paid firefighters. Their plan calls for one paid firefighter and one volunteer firefighter to staff the North Forty Fire Station and the downtown fire station 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts.

“A change to a full ‘paid department’ is no one’s goal,” the report states. “A highly customized, well-crafted ‘combination department’ that preserves our primarily volunteer model fulfills this committee’s vision for best, responsible, reliable service for our community.”

The eight paid firefighters would cost about $700,000 a year, Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine has said. The department currently relies on volunteer firefighters and seven paid administrators.

Adam Cohen, a member of the committee that issued the report, told the board Tuesday that committee members were eager for a response from board members to the report after five months.

“We would like a reply,” he said. “We just want to see some movement.”

Board member Dennis Murray said he wasn’t impressed by the committee’s recommendations.

“I read the proposals and I don’t like any of them,” he said. “We want to make it work with the volunteer model. We want to (staff the department) with volunteers … until we get to a place where we can’t.”

Before dealing with the staffing question, the board first needs to quantify the department’s mission and the services it ought to be providing to the residents of the district, Murray said.

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said the department “without a doubt needs overnight staffing” to improve response times. Doing that with only volunteers places a serious burden on those volunteers, he said.

Board member Stoney Davis, however, wondered why the 24-hour staffing was necessary when no one has died in a fire recently and no one’s home has burned down.

“It seems to me we’re adequately servicing the community without 24-hour staffing,” he said. “Why do we need someone sitting (around) at the North Forty waiting for a call?”

Deputy Fire Chief Parker Lathrop said responding to calls is only 10% of a firefighter’s job. The other 90% involves inspections and other work that generally doesn’t allow firefighters the chance to sit around watching television while on duty, he said.

Adam, the board chairman, assured firefighters that their report wouldn’t be locked away and not dealt with at all. Instead, he said he’d like to first focus on building firefighter housing units at the North Forty in the near future and “kick the can down the road” on paid firefighters to the end of the year at least.

“We’ve not done the work at our level yet,” Adam said. “There’s a lot of items we need to consider at the board level before we give direction in the future.”

In November, voters approved a mill levy that will raise $54.8 million during the next 20 years, which Balentine has said will be spent on firefighter housing, replacing capital needs like firetrucks and possibly paid firefighters.