Basalt/Snowmass fire department stretched thin by surging number of fire, medical calls |

Basalt/Snowmass fire department stretched thin by surging number of fire, medical calls

Master plan will help Roaring Fork Fire Rescue chart course for future

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue crews responded in October to a structure fire in the Seasons Four complex in Snowmass Village.
David Krause / The Aspen Times

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue’s fire and medical calls are growing at a rate that might force the department to seek help from the people it helps.

Total calls increased by 292 or 15% in 2021 over 2020. The trend shows no sign of abating. Calls were up another 15% in the first quarter of 2022 over the same period in 2021.

“Last year was the busiest year we’ve ever had — 2,254 incidents,” said deputy fire chief Richard Cornelius. The 292 call increase “doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s significant for our organization. That’s a large increase in the demand for services.”

While 18 structures fires were a lot in one year for the department, it was emergency medical services that really soared. The number of medical calls jumped 171 or 19% last year over 2020.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue oversees a sprawling district that stretches from El Jebel to Snowmass Village.

Fire chief Scott Thompson said a growing population is sparking more calls for service.

“We’re dealing with a much higher increase in population, and I think it’s very evident in our number of calls,” he said. “Our second homes are filled. Every apartment and every condo has people in it. That’s what’s driving our calls. There’s a glut of traffic on Highway 82. There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have car crashes.”

The growing population and related strain in services is affecting all infrastructure, not just the fire department.

“I think the increased population in the valley — and the data proves it — is straining our resources, and I’m sure the police departments would say the same thing,” Thompson said.

Over the past two years, mental health calls have climbed, likely because of the isolation and the pressure associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the officials said. Many people were unable to get treatment for underlying illnesses and conditions they had. Substance abuse is also noticeably higher.

Thompson said the growth in demand for services started prior to the pandemic, and it will continue after COVID-19 eases for good. It’s all about the growth and development of residential and commercial property.

“Right now in our fire district we have 1 million square feet under construction,” Thompson said. “By the end of the summer, with the plans that we’ve seen and the Tree Farm coming on board, we’re going to have 2 million square feet under construction.”

“We can’t keep up anymore, that’s the bottom line.” — fire chief Scott Thompson

The increased demand will come at a cost to all property owners, not just developers of the new projects. The fire district hired an independent contractor to create a master plan. The study includes looking at current conditions and future growth and then assessing how the fire and ambulance district is prepared to meet the needs over the next five to 10 years. The master plan will be released in April.

“It will give us a better indication of where we are regarding our response times and our staffing, Thompson said. “We know that we’re understaffed right now given what our call volume has done. We’ve been very taxed at various times. It’s a good thing we have good partnerships.”

The fire departments in Aspen, Roaring Fork, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs share resources and cover for one another when they get stretched thin. The departments are working on a “major incident response model” that will provide automatic assistance, Cornelius said.

“We’re all busier than we’ve ever been,” he said. “We’re strapped for resources. We all have to work together.”

For Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, there has been an inopportune decrease in the number of volunteers just when calls for service are soaring. Volunteers play a critical role in augmenting paid responders.

“At our peak we had up over 50 volunteers,” Cornelius said. “We’re down to 36 right now.”

There are 27 full-time, paid responders and 15 part-time paid responders. There is additional paid help on the administrative side.

One advantage of the increase in the number of calls is the volunteers are leaned on to help with more responses. That should help stabilize the numbers and possibly even attract more applicants.

“The volunteers weren’t getting siren time. That’s half the fun of being a volunteer,” Thompson said.

The district has also invested in employee housing to help maintain staffing. Three units are included in a fire station being constructed on West Sopris Creek Road. That boosts the total number of affordable housing units for the district to 17.

Once the master plan is released and assessed, Thompson predicted the district would approach voters for an increase in taxes, potentially for personnel, remodel or expansion of stations and addition of training facilities. The district’s board of directors will have the final word on if and when to seek a ballot measure.

“We can’t keep up anymore, that’s the bottom line,” Thompson said. “We’ve grown up, and now we’ve got to start paying for that. Our infrastructure isn’t going to support this.”


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