Aspen Fire Department celebrates 135 years of protecting, saving lives |

Aspen Fire Department celebrates 135 years of protecting, saving lives

Erica Robbie  The Aspen Times

Imagine being at work, going about your daily business, when a dispatcher from the Fire Department pages you.

Next thing you know, you’re out the door, rushing to the scene of a life-threatening emergency where you pull a person out of a smoking vehicle, only to discover it is someone you recognize.

A scenario that most would consider their worst nightmare is one that could happen at any minute for the 40 courageous men and women who serve and protect the community as Aspen’s Volunteer Fire Department.

This is one on the most challenging aspects of working as a firefighter in a small town like Aspen, said former Aspen Fire Department firefighter Jack Simmons, who retired this year after 30 years of service.

“When you go to a fire and you’re hauling a person out and all of the sudden you see that it’s someone you played hockey with or you lose a loved one,” Simmons said. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

“Most of the time here, you know almost every call,” Aspen Fire Department Chief Rick Balentine said.

For Balentine, the most difficult part of the job is not being able to save a life.

“The ones you can’t save stick with me, or probably all of us, more than the ones you save,” Balentine said.

“Or pulling someone out alive, only to find out they’ve passed 24 hours later,” Simmons added.

Still, Balentine said he gets more out of the experience than he puts into it.

“The first time you save a life or help someone out of a crashed car makes it all worth it,” Balentine said.

Fortunately, the majority of calls to the Aspen Fire Department do not involve life-or-death situations.

In fact, “Fires are the least of what we do anymore,” Balentine said.

On average, the Aspen Fire Department gets about two calls a day, though some days it may be zero calls while other days it is five or six, Simmons said, noting that wildfire season traditionally averages closer to two or three calls per day.

As of Friday, the department has received 332 calls this year, Aspen Fire Department rookie firefighter Charlie Curtis said.

Firefighters take calls for everything from car accidents, floods and carbon monoxide alarms to signals or smell of smoke, gas leaks and cats in trees.

But no matter what the incident, whether it is an unsure situation or a false alarm, the Fire Department encourages the community to reach out to them.

“It’s still important to call us, and it’s better to be comfortable than to hesitate,” Curtis said.

Since 1881, the Aspen Fire Department has protected and served the community with an all-volunteer staff.

When the volunteers aren’t risking their lives to save others, they juggle regular jobs across all sections of the community.

These residents are hotel food and beverage directors, property managers, waiters, deputy sheriffs, paramedics, architects, heating and air conditioning technicians, racecar drivers and bankers, Balentine said.

“The reason we’re able to carry on this tradition of 135 years of volunteer firefighters is because of our local employers who allow volunteers to leave work when we have an emergency,” he said.

Along with employers, firefighters’ families play a pivotal role in allowing the volunteers to do what they do, as both Simmons and Balentine pointed out.

“The families are kind of the unsung heroes,” Simmons said.

Balentine agreed, “We couldn’t do it without them.”