Consultant: Aspen Fire needs to change, but not too much
The Aspen Fire Department Board’s decision last month to hire nine paid firefighters at the historically volunteer organization could cut response time in half, a consultant said Wednesday.
But the department needs to improve more than just the time it takes to get to fires, he said. It also must develop a more coherent vision, better and more consistent training and greater financial transparency, said Rich Buchanan with Emergency Services Consulting International.
“The Aspen Fire Protection District is a remarkable organization, but I believe it’s at a crossroads,” he said Wednesday. “What worked for the last 50 years might not work for the next 50.”
Still, Aspen Fire’s volunteer tradition should not be cast away, he said.
“The volunteer system as it exists in Aspen will be here for a long time and should be,” Buchanan said. “It is the backbone of this organization and we need to keep it that way.”
Buchanan appeared Wednesday at the AFD Board’s regular meeting to give a presentation based on information he gathered in Aspen in December, and the 137-page report that came out of that visit. Wednesday’s meeting was held mostly virtually, though Buchanan, Fire Chief Rick Balentine and another person or two were in the fire station meeting room where the presentation was given.
The report cost between $30,000 and $35,000, Balentine said Wednesday.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first to include the board’s newest member, Michael Buglione, a local construction supervisor and former Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy elected earlier this month.
While volunteers clearly provide the department’s backbone, the needs of the Aspen and Pitkin County communities often cause backaches for those volunteers, Buchanan said.
First, an analysis of Aspen Fire Department calls showed that they begin to rise about 7 a.m. most days, and run through the day and into the evening before beginning to drop off again around 7 p.m. Second, unlike most populated areas, a majority of the department’s calls come Monday through Friday, with calls gradually rising throughout the week and peaking Thursday.
Saturday and Sunday show a large drop in calls, he said, noting that the discrepancy is so unusual that analysts ran the numbers twice to make sure.
Taken together, that is a double-whammy for volunteers, who often must take time from work to respond to calls, causing burnout and fatigue.
“Monday through Friday you guys are busy,” Buchanan said. “This is the reason to re-evaluate your staffing.”
Aspen Fire’s overall response time to calls is 15:16, he said. However, that may not be entirely accurate because AFD personnel often respond to calls in personal vehicles, which don’t count toward an official response time that should only include fire engine response.
The department needs to be able to separate out those private vehicle responses in the future to obtain a more accurate response time.
Department statistics show the response time for a fire — about 1% of calls — is 24:19, Buchanan said. That includes volunteers arriving at the station, putting on equipment and driving away in a fire truck.
“You can cut at least nine minutes off most of your calls … by having two (paid firefighters) sitting in this building,” he said. “ You could cut (the fire response time) in half, maybe more.”
Paid firefighters also could help the department reshape its response to alarms, which constitute the largest single category of calls it receives. Those calls are currently screened, but Buchanan said he believes fire trucks need to respond to every commercial fire alarm that occurs.
“The risk is too high with big hotels” if you don’t, he said.
For residential alarms, however, the department needs to come up with a plan. One example might be to charge someone if an alarm continues to malfunction, a tactic that likely ensures proper maintenance, Buchanan said.
The consultant pushed department officials fairly hard to look at instituting paramedic services to back up those now provided by employees of the Aspen Ambulance District. Aspen Fire currently only helped out with emergency medical services in 2% of calls, he said.
While Aspen Ambulance does a good job and provides a faster response time than AFD, their calls are increasing and during peak times, “I think they could use some help,” Buchanan said.
Aspen Fire also needs a strategic plan, which would include the department’s vision, values and goals. Community stakeholders, elected officials and other agencies need to be involved in coming up with that plan, perhaps in the form of a survey, he said.
Other areas in need of improvement include an inconsistent training regimen and finances that remain too general, he said.
“I believe you manage your money well,” Buchanan said.
However, for greater transparency, greater detail and itemization of expenses is necessary.
“That helps to justify your expenses to your constituents,” he said.
One area of controversy absent from Wednesday’s presentation was any mention of tensions between Balentine and the leaders of other area emergency services agencies. Those tensions turned to frustrations in September when three of those leaders, who were later interviewed by Buchanan in the course of his information gathering in December, went public with criticisms of Balentine and their inability to work with him.
But the only reference to the rift comes on page 116 of the 137-page report.
“The environment between AFD and surrounding agencies appeared to be strained and has resulted in limited interagency cooperation,” the report states. “A lack of cooperation can compromise mutual aid responses, fire ground operations and overall service delivery.
“(The consulting firm) recommends the development and implementation of a process to improve interagency cooperation throughout Pitkin County.”
The AFD Board voted a month ago to hire nine paid firefighters, which will result in professionals being able to cover three 24-hour shifts, Balentine said Wednesday. A fourth 24-hour shift will be covered by volunteers, he said. Two of those shifts will always be posted at the downtown Aspen station, while the other two will float, Balentine said.
Paid firefighters in Aspen would likely make an average base salary of $65,000 with benefits of $26,650 for a total compensation package of $91,650, according to a financial analysis provided in the consulting firm’s report.
On Wednesday, Balentine said those numbers are generally accurate, and that the positions will cost about $100,000 each, with the total approaching $1 million a year.
The department hopes to hire the firefighters in July and have them start the first week of August, he said.
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