Aspen Fire to add six more to career, paid firefighter roster
More than a year into a volunteer-career combination model, majority of Aspen Fire Protection District board agrees to step up coverage
A year and a half into having paid firefighters on the dole of the taxpayer-supported Aspen Fire Protection District, board members have decided to increase the roster from the original nine to 15 career responders.
The AFPD board 3-2 voted last month to hire three lieutenants and three firefighters, which increases wages for the district’s 2022 budget to $1.15 million, according to Deputy Chief Jake Andersen.
The additions are meant to reduce response times; meet national standards; keep both the North Forty and downtown fire stations open every day; eliminate overtime pay; increase safety for firefighters; and deliver a higher level of service to the public.
Current staffing allows one captain and three firefighters per shift across station Nos. 61 and 62, and that is if no one is out sick, on paid time off or any other reason to be absent, Andersen said.
On the best days, with the additional hires, is a captain and two career firefighters at one station and a lieutenant, one career firefighter and one volunteer at the other.
The addition of one lieutenant per shift provides an officer at both stations and a level of leadership for firefighters on the scene of accidents, fires and medical emergencies, according to Andersen.
“I’m not going to lie, it does bother me very much to see two firefighters by themselves going to some of these complex scenarios,” he told the board during its Dec. 7 meeting. “As I see three- or four-year firefighters consoling family after the death of a loved one, that’s something I haven’t really witnessed in my career.
“That’s typically a duty reserved for the officer and the officer can help them deal with what they’ve just been through as a crew after the call, as well.”
Andersen said due to understaffing and the limited availability of volunteers, one of the two fire stations closed 10 times last year and over 2,000 hours of overtime, amounting to $150,00, was paid 98 days.
Aspen Fire Capt. Ken Josselyn said during the December meeting that closing either station puts the public and firefighters at risk.
“No matter what we do, we are keeping ourselves exposed significantly either way,” he told the board. “We can’t send a single firefighter out on a smoke alarm, and we get there, it’s something else. … Incidents grow, and they evolve, and they don’t all start big.
“We need to be prepared and to be able to staff appropriately in a safe manner, that’s what keeps me awake at night.”
Andersen said last week that the interiors of homes contain mostly synthetic material, and the time to reach full room combustion is three and a half minutes, and four firefighters are needed to be on scene before they can safely enter the structure.
National standards for response times is five minutes and 20 seconds, and while AFPD has recently reduced its response times to have enough qualified firefighters on scene, it’s still double what the National Fire Protection Association considers acceptable.
Due to skyrocketing property valuations in recent years, the AFPD has captured an unexpected $580,000 for the 2022 budget, which would otherwise be put in reserves if not used for additional staffing, Andersen and some board members acknowledged.
Andersen also recognized that adding more paid, career staff to a fire department that has been all volunteer for 139 years is not a popular move for people attached to tradition and question the need.
“I know this is a sensitive topic, and I know that there are going to be people that are absolutely furious for me bringing this forward,” he told the board. “I’ve looked at the numbers in every way I can, and I can’t justify not bringing this forward to you and giving you the information that I have.
“My proposal is that we take the money we have, that the public has entrusted us with, and we put it directly toward increasing our service to them, their safety, the safety of our employees and providing the highest level of service that we are capable of providing within our means.”
Board members John Ward and Denis Murray were not swayed and voted against the additional hires.
“It’s worked for 139 years but not now,” Murray said, adding when the district added the initial career personnel in the summer of 2020, it should’ve been enough then. “For years we debated staff, no staff, all volunteer versus combination. … We couldn’t get it done with nine, and we’ve proven that nine is detrimental to the nine because of the need for overtime to 2,000 hours, I just don’t get it.”
Ward said he’s concerned that adding more paid firefighters cannibalizes the volunteers, and it’s wise to just let the current level of paid staff play out.
“I think we still have to let this work, and we’ve got to recruit more volunteers,” he said. “We have a lot of money, and the money is readily available; you got 70% of the voters to approve our mill levy, but that doesn’t mean we have to spend it all.”
Board member Stephen Wertheimer said making incremental changes is a healthy way to manage the organization and meet the needs of the public and national standards for response times.
“I want to see us get from 20, to 10, to seven and a half to five (minutes),” he said. “I want to know that someone is going to be there, and I’m not sitting outside of my house watching it burn and looking at my watch.”
Aspen Fire Capt. Jake Spaulding told the board that he fully supports hiring more staff, as well as add as many as 14 additional volunteers over the next two years.
“It’s 100% about safety and getting out the door and keeping our citizens safe and our firefighters safe,” he said. “There’s not many things that keep me up at night, but it keeps me up at night when we’re running (a two-person) station. … So I just ask the board to support us and make sure we go home every day.”
The AFPD typically has between 40 and 45 volunteers, although not all of them are fully trained, or active. Fire officials estimate that there are between 25 and 37 volunteers on the roster who can respond to a call, if they are not already committed to work or family or other obligations.
Murray said there is less incentive to become a volunteer firefighter or have a volunteer respond to a call because they know the paid, on-duty personnel already at the station will handle it.
Andersen said he understands the potential disfranchisement between longtime volunteers and career firefighters in a combination-staffed model and is taking steps to address it.
“The reality is that even with two, four-person companies, volunteer response is still absolutely necessary and expected at the same levels as today, or greater,” reads a Nov. 9 letter he wrote to the board, noting that recruiting and retaining a volunteer response force remains a focal point. “Another benefit of this response model is that instead of arriving when the fire has already engulfed a large portion of the building we will arrive at a time when we can actually make a significant impact in survivability and property conservation.
“Under this model, our volunteers will truly get an opportunity to get inside and really knock a fire back or to continue operations without losing water and having to back out. A bare minimum response to a low-risk occupancy structure fire is 15 personnel to fill all critical incident tasks.”
Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine talks with the community.
The Aspen Fire Protection Board of Directors voted last year to extend Fire Chief Rick Balentine’s employment contract through Dec. 31, 2022.
His future was uncertain in early 2021 when the board had contemplated a six-month contract, as opposed to multiyear ones that Balentine has had since becoming chief in 2014.
The board last spring devised a detailed list of goals and employment milestones that Balentine had to achieve by the end of 2021.
Many of them attempted to address concerns raised from firefighters about Balentine’s leadership skills and his ability to improve relationships with neighboring public safety agencies.
Some of the goals and milestones asked for specific action, such as providing examples that Balentine is encouraging communication with staff and that he values their input.
Another goal mandated that Balentine provide documentation that he makes strides in improving communication with members of the Public Safety Council.
Balentine also was tasked with increasing employee morale by 25% by the end of the year.
The board was satisfied with the action that Balentine took and approved in August an extension through this year, with a 5% pay increase to his $161,832 salary.
It was the first pay raise he has received in three years, according to the minutes of the Aug. 10 AFPD board meeting.
— Carolyn Sackariason, The Aspen Times
U.S. Ski & Snowboard on Tuesday announced the final U.S. World Cup schedule, a lineup that includes the Aspen World Cup from March 3 to 5 on Aspen Mountain. Those races will include a men’s super-G and two men’s downhills.