Aspen firefighters get rare boon " free health insurance |

Aspen firefighters get rare boon " free health insurance

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Left to right, Blair Elliot, Clif Little and Jesse Graber, (not pictured Bill Rinaldi). Each has more than 20-years of service with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. Photo by Michael Brands courtesy of the AVFD.

ASPEN ” Aspen’s volunteer firefighters, regularly showered with acclaim and gratitude for their work in saving lives and property, are getting a much rarer return for their dedication ” free health insurance.

This year the district is paying for health insurance, or an equivalent insurance-related benefit, for each of the 39 volunteer firefighters ” 33 men and six women ” who respond to everything from accidents on ski mountains to fires in area homes, accidents, wildland fires and more.

“Pretty much everybody’s getting something out of it,” said Deputy Chief Rick Balentine. For example, he said, for those who have health insurance through some other means, such as a spouse’s job, the fire district is kicking in money toward the premium on their policy.

The Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors voted late last year to offer free health insurance as a benefit, following a proposal from Balentine. The new policy has been in effect since Jan. 1.

“They were very appreciative,” Balentine said in an interview, describing how the volunteers reacted. “To be able to be recognized for all their work … was a pretty big deal.”

And, Balentine added, “We’re the first and only, so far as I know, volunteer fire department in the state to do this … not only in the state, but probably in the country.”

Balentine said he spent the past two years putting together his proposal, which was made possible by a change in state law that permitted volunteers to be considered as eligible for group health insurance coverage.

After mulling the cost of providing the insurance, which Balentine said is budgeted to cost approximately $5,000 this year, versus the savings realized by local taxpayers by having a volunteer department as opposed to a paid one, the board concluded that Balentine was on to something.

Balentine said he determined that those savings, against the cost of a paid fire department for a district the size of Aspen and Pitkin County, come to about $3 million a year.

The boon to the firefighters comes as the department is thinking about future recruitment drives to bring more people into the fold.

Balentine said the new fire house on Hopkins Avenue is scheduled to be completed by next summer, and that a recruitment drive is being considered to coincide with the facility’s opening.

The need for fresh recruits has been underscored by the recent retirement of five longtime members ” Cliff Little (30 years), Jesse Graber (20-plus years), Blair Elliott (20), Bill Rinaldi (20) and Lanny Curtis (15) ” and the department’s general preference for having between 40 and 45 firefighters to draw from.

“That’s 105 years worth of experience,” Balentine said of the retiring group, noting that younger firefighters learn a considerable amount from the veterans. “We’re really going to miss them.”

Balentine said that while “none of us do this for the money,” the insurance might make the difference for a working man or woman thinking of volunteering but worried about being able to both do the tough work of fighting fires and the equally challenging task of staying alive and healthy in the Roaring Fork Valley.

He also pointed out that this week is National Volunteers Week, a time when the nation gives thanks and recognition to the countless individuals who offer their services free of charge for any number of activities and programs.

He said the department, which has two deputy chiefs and six volunteer captains, responded to 718 calls for service in 2008, and racked up nearly 2,600 hours in training for the volunteers over the year.

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