Aspen Fire strategizes for the future
Strategic plan addresses issues of the past and looks at the priorities for the next five years and beyond
After several months in the making, the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors last week approved a strategic plan that maps out the department’s goals for the next five years.
There are six main areas for development within the department, which has experienced some turmoil in recent years with low morale among volunteers and staff, as well as a change in its 140-year history that now has paid, career firefighters within the ranks.
The plan was developed after seeking input from community members, paid staff and volunteers via satisfaction surveys and a two-day retreat that was held in April.
After the strategic plan was presented to the board in May, changes were made to the document and ratified on June 8 with unanimous approval.
It is the first of its kind in the department’s history and was facilitated by Sacramento, California-based consultant AP Triton for $20,000.
During the retreat, over a dozen firefighters and staff members established several measurements, timelines and accountability guidelines that the board will use to gauge whether initiatives are satisfactorily met.
“It’s a floor-driven document and can lead the department through not just the next five years but hopefully set the stage for the next 25 years,” said Aspen Fire Deputy Chief Jake Andersen, who came into the process as a new hire in March.
The board tweaked the department’s mission statement to include the words “professional excellence” and the word “safety” was added as a core value.
“Everything we do is about safety but we didn’t state it anywhere,” Andersen said.
The strategic-planning process is the result of an assessment of the fire protection district that was provided ESCI Consulting Inc. for $39,000 in May of 2020.
Among many suggestions for improvement, such as reducing response times and strengthening relationships with other public safety agencies, was establishing a strategic plan.
The assessment noted, based on interviews with heads of public safety agencies and local government, that relationships between Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine and surrounding organizations appeared strained and had resulted in limited interagency cooperation in recent years.
Revamping mutual and auto aid agreements between Aspen Fire and public safety agencies is one of the objectives Andersen is working on under the “cooperative enhancements” initiative.
“If you prioritize politics over safety we have a problem, so that is our response to the community, saying ‘hey we want to be good neighbors,’” Andersen said. “We’re doing everything we can to repair relationships.”
Results of the community survey show that a high number of respondents want Aspen Fire to prioritize emergency medical services.
But with the high level of service provided by Aspen Ambulance District, the strategic plan addresses how to heighten support for existing EMS response.
“We are better working together,” Andersen said, adding that Aspen Ambulance District provides advanced life support care at a level that is unparalleled in most areas of the state. “Aspen Fire Protection District’s commitment to increasing our ability to support our local ambulance district will result in enhanced symbiosis with Aspen Ambulance and allow us to operate in alignment with the expectations of our citizens, elected officials and key community partners which were outlined during the planning process.”
With some tenured employees, both who are paid and those who are volunteer firefighters, have voiced their dissatisfaction with communication from administration at the top.
The strategic plan also addresses that, with Andersen spearheading an internal and external communications plan for the department under the “organizational development” initiative.
“We had some really open conversations (during the retreat),” Andersen said. “I’m already working on a couple of pilot projects to see if they work and will stick with people.”
The community will be surveyed more under that initiative, to establish what other expectations the public has for Aspen Fire.
The department’s organizational weaknesses identified in the strategic plan include accountability, lack of direction, communication, management, staffing levels and perception.
Organizational strengths listed include quality of personnel, community support, training, dedication and passion from staff and the ability to change.
Threats to the organizations were identified as the cost of living in the valley, a decline in staffing, climate change and political influencers.
Initiatives, which all have between three-month and five-year timelines, are officer and leadership development; program development; capital assessment management; staffing; cooperative enhancements and organizational development.
Of Aspen Fire’s 60 paid and volunteer firefighters and staff members at the time of the internal survey, 39 responded via an online forum anonymously.
When asked what their priorities are, 16% said leadership issues. That is the highest priority ranked in the survey, with the next top issue, officer development, at 11%. Improved communications was the third highest priority at 9%.
Firefighters and staff intimated through the survey that they also want more communication from the board.
One of the goals attached to Balentine’s 2021 employment contract is the continued development of stakeholder relationships and external communications.
Board members have recognized 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 its 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 scheduled to review progress on those goals at its July meeting.
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