Bringing It Home: Commitment runs deep for Aspen volunteer firefighters
The Aspen Times
Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
On Tuesday, The Denver Post ran a story about the difficulties fire departments in Colorado have attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters. That’s a switch from 20 years ago, when most stations had a waiting list to volunteer.
The article lists several changing social standards as reasons for the volunteer shortage: Having both parents generally working; a higher premium on recreation, education and other activities; and current businesses less willing to allow employees to leave their jobs, have all contributed to a shortage of volunteers.
Aspen has traditionally had a solid core of volunteers for the Fire Department and still maintains a healthy volunteer staff. In Aspen, all of the current 42 frontline firefighters are volunteers.
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“We’re 100 percent volunteer firefighting staff here,” said Rick Balentine, fire chief and CEO of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. “People are really surprised to hear that. We protect more than $20 billion in property with an all-volunteer firefighting force.”
“We have three new recruits right now and had four rookies come on two years ago. We try and keep our ranks between 45 and 50 volunteers, and that’s been pretty consistent. We’re currently trying to get the ranks up and will take another recruit class the first part of next year.” Balentine said.
Aspen has five paid staff positions that include the fire chief, the fire marshal and the deputy fire marshals.
Balentine was a volunteer fire chief, deputy chief, chaplain and captain — all volunteer positions. When it was determined the fire chief position was too demanding to remain as a volunteer position, Balentine was elected to the new paid fire chief position in 2013 by the volunteer staff and began that position in January. It’s his first paid position with the Fire Department in 25 years.
Balentine, like many of his peers, believes there’s a Catch-22 to becoming a volunteer firefighter. With so many second-home owners in Aspen who are used to a high level of firefighter service from wherever they’re from, Balentine said Aspen strives to be as professional as possible.
“Our volunteers are all minimum certified Firefighter I, which means all the volunteers have to go through classes and certification to become firefighters and first responders,” Balentine said. “We have to be trained to fight fires, deal with hazardous materials and have medical, wildfire and swift-water rescue training. We have damn good firefighters. I’m still amazed at the level of professionalism this group displays. I can’t tell you how assuring it is to know I can depend on our volunteers.”
While the intensive training requirements lead to a better-trained volunteer, the time required to train often catches recruits off guard.
“When we sit down with a potential volunteer and go over the time commitment, we lose people,” Balentine said. “We also make sure their significant other knows the time commitment, especially during training. The time commitment is very real. We’ve never had a problem keeping our volunteer numbers up, but it’s getting more difficult.”
The Fire Department’s training requirements are the same that paid fire departments go through.
“It’s pretty rigorous,” Balentine said. “It takes months of two to three nights a week training and some weekends. They go through classwork, then they have to go out and show they know how to enter a house, how to breach a wall, how to spray foam on a car fire. They also go through live burn training at the Rifle Burn Center. It’s pretty intensive. It’s a lot of hours.”
Since Balentine still responds to emergencies, he’s technically the only paid firefighter. He said the average age is now 50-something with the Aspen firefighters. The Fire Department pays for the volunteer training. What they ask in return is a five-year commitment to volunteer. There’s no contract to commit, just the trust between the department and the volunteer.
“We’re the only fire department in Colorado that offers health insurance to our volunteers at no cost,” Balentine said. “If it can keep some of the silverbacks on our staff a few years more, it’s worth it.”
Parker Lathrop is a deputy fire marshal for the Fire Department. He’s been a volunteer for 12 years.
“It’s getting tougher to bring new people in,” Lathrop said. “The training standards are demanding. We had a much larger group who expressed interest in becoming a volunteer than the people actually being trained. We lost probably three-quarters of the volunteer candidates once they realized the time commitments.”
Jack Simmons is the president of the Aspen Fire Protection District board and has been a volunteer firefighter for 29 years in Aspen. He used to own the Holland House ski lodge and had previous firefighting training when he was in the Navy.
“Becoming a volunteer helped me break through the old-timers’ prejudice against the newcomers,” he said. “When I first started, it wasn’t easy to get on as a volunteer. There was a waiting list, and you pretty much had to know somebody in the department to become a volunteer. When I came on, you had to survive a six-month probation period. Now, you can’t volunteer to do a lesser job. When you volunteer you have to have the same training standards as a career firefighter.”
Lathrop and Simmons both agreed that they became volunteer firefighters because it allowed them to keep their other jobs while giving something back to the community.
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” Simmons said. “We’re there to help, not to hurt. It’s given me back 500 percent to what I’ve put in.”
Simmons said that around 80 percent of the fire departments in the U.S. are volunteer-based.
“I have friends who went the paid route, and being a volunteer is different,” Lathrop said. “When you show up at 2 a.m. for a call, everyone is there because they want to, not because they have to. They’re not there for a paycheck; they’re there by their own personal choice.”
Simmons said the volunteer attitude is part of the Aspen tradition.
“Aspen has a great history of volunteerism,” Simmons said. “There are so many people that volunteer for something here that I can’t see there ever being a lack of volunteers for the Fire Department. We need to rewrite the modern volunteer model and change some attitudes on how you can participate. If we get that done, this place is going to be around a long time.”
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