Aspen Fire internal issues heat up this week

Following an assessment listing weaknesses within the organization, a two-day strategic planning retreat is planned

With claims of low morale among some firefighters at the Aspen Fire Department and continued strained relationships between chief Rick Balentine and the heads of other public safety agencies, the special district is embarking on a strategic planning retreat this week.

The three-day event begins Thursday with the Aspen Fire Protection District board meeting with Rich Buchanan, a consultant hired to conduct the strategic-planning process.

Buchanan, who works for Sacramento, California-based AP Triton Consulting, will present to the board the results of two satisfaction surveys — one of the community at large and the other of firefighters and paid staff.

At the board’s March 9 meeting, volunteer firefighter Ryan Warren, who is the president of the AVFD Inc. that represents the firefighters, said the results of that survey could very well indicate that there is dissatisfaction with Balentine as a leader.

He added that he has spoken to several firefighters who are discussing whether to bring back a confidence vote of the chief, which was an annual tradition prior to Balentine becoming the chief in 2014.

“It might be a really eyeopening observation of what people think,” Warren said at the March meeting. “This was done anonymously and one assumes that people will provide their real opinions and it might be very interesting.”

Buchanan declined to provide the results of the surveys to The Aspen Times but said last week that the one among firefighters and paid staff showed that 16% responded saying they have concerns about leadership.

Details about the survey results are expected to be revealed to board members during their Thursday meeting. They’ll also discuss what the strategic plan retreat will look like Friday and Saturday.

“I will ask them if they want to set any boundaries for me, financially or certain initiatives that they are going to require because they are the governing body so I let them make some ground rules,” Buchanan said of the elected board members.

The board and chief will not attend the retreat. Instead, 15 selected firefighters and staff members will be present.

“You want the troops, the people actually doing the job to take their boundaries and start developing initiatives and goals,” Buchanan said. “We don’t put the board or the chief in there so people can speak freely.”

Saturday will involve the group establishing some metrics so the board has something to measure on how effective people are doing their jobs.

“The last day we will develop the actual metrics, … this is what you say you are going to do, these are the people who are responsible for it and this is what measures success,” Buchanan said. “If you say ‘I want to improve relations with neighboring departments as an initiative,’ which could be and I almost encourage it but we will see what they come up with, then I will guide them on ‘how are you going to measure that?’”

The group will determine measurements, timelines and accountability guidelines that the board will use to gauge whether the initiatives are satisfactorily met.

“This is a living document,” Buchanan said.

The strategic-planning process is the result of an assessment of the fire protection district that Buchanan provided to the board in May.

Among many suggestions for improvement, like reducing response times and strengthening relationships with other public safety agencies, was establishing a strategic plan.

“There are opportunities for improvement, and you don’t want (the assessment report) to end up on the shelf ,” Buchanan said. “You can’t be organized without a strategic plan.”

As part of the assessment, Buchanan interviewed the heads of Pitkin County government, the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, Aspen Ambulance District, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

Those interviews resulted in Buchanan writing in the report that, “The environment between AFD and surrounding agencies appeared to be strained and has resulted in limited interagency cooperation.”

One of the goals attached to Balentine’s 2021 employment contract is the continued development of stakeholder relationships and external communications.

Board members recognize that Balentine has had tumultuous relationships with those agencies for myriad reasons in recent years and were going to give him a six-month contract this year.

But at the March meeting, the board agreed that there were no measurements established to determine whether Balentine adequately met the goals.

As a result, the board extended Balentine’s contract to the end the of the year to allow enough time for him to meet what are called his “employment milestones.”

The board is expected to vote on an amended employment contract, as well as a milestones and measurements document at its April 13 meeting.

While some relationships have improved between Balentine and agency and department heads, not all of them have.

Agency heads confirmed last month that neither board members nor Balentine had not contacted them in an effort to determine how to improve their relationships.

Aspen Fire board president John Ward said last week that he often thought about reaching out to the leaders of local public safety agencies but hasn’t.

That’s about to change.

“I can commit to reaching out to these department heads,” he said, adding the board is trying to address concerns from outside and within the organization. “We are trying to improve our house.”

Ward and board member Michael Buglione said while there are issues to be addressed, there have been several accomplishments Balentine has achieved since becoming fire chief.

They include getting a mill levy increase passed by voters in 2018 that pays for paid firefighters to complement volunteers so there are 24/7 duty crews.

The increased revenue also enables the fire department to replace aging equipment.

Aspen Fire successfully negotiated with homeowners in the gated Starwood neighborhood to build a $2 million new fire station at the residents’ expense. Two two-bedroom apartments also were included for firefighters and their families to reside in.

The fire department broke ground last month on a $17 million affordable-housing complex across from the airport that will help recruit and retain firefighters.

A wildfire mapping and risk assessment was completed in 2018, which entailed sending boots on the ground to inspect about 6,000 structures. The wildfire risk assessments on those properties is on the fire department’s website.

Those are a few examples of the accomplishments driven by Balentine and the fire department.

Karl Hanlon, attorney for the Aspen Fire Protection District, said over the past 10 years he has seen the organization grow in a positive way.

“From my perspective, the board is working really hard and continues to improve and grow the organization,” he said.