Emergency calls reflect booming midvalley
BASALT ” Basalt firefighters and medical personnel finally caught their breath last week after a flurry of calls that began Christmas Eve day and stretched the predominantly volunteer department to its limits.
The emergency responders were called out 40 times in the first 14 days of January, and 76 times from mid-December to mid-January, according to deputy fire chief Jerry Peetz.
“The volunteers were busy. We were running day and night,” Peetz said. “They weren’t routine calls.”
The day before Christmas was particularly grim. The department’s Swift Water Rescue team retrieved a body from a car that plunged into the Fryingpan River. Earlier that morning, an ambulance crew was called to the scene of a suspected murder-suicide attempt where a man allegedly shot himself with a nail gun after trying to shoot his girlfriend.
Also that day, medical crews responded to two suicides ” one successful and one attempt.
Since New Year’s, the department rushed to three structure fires and a vehicle fire along with a rash of car accidents on snowpacked and icy roads. Ambulance and rescue crews from Basalt responded along with Carbondale’s department to a crash on Highway 82 in which two people were killed and one person seriously injured.
Fire chief Scott Thompson said a call to a house fire Jan. 12 demonstrated the dedication of the volunteers. Despite responding to the flurry of recent calls ” which disrupt work, sleep, family time and the holidays ” more than 20 firefighters responded when he expected only a handful.
Basalt has seven paid emergency responders, including Thompson and Peetz. It relies heavily on 50 volunteers. Of them, half have taken enough training to qualify as emergency medical technicians. The other half are trained as first responders who help assess and initiate care on victims of car accidents, medical calls and the like.
From a firefighting perspective, 95 percent of the volunteers have at least 130 hours of training on wildland fires. On any given week, training classes are offered on some aspect of emergency response. The paid staff and volunteers must meet training quotas each month.
One week they might practice extricating a “victim” from a car crash; another week they might dive into frigid Blue Lake to retrieve a mock drowning victim.
“It’s not sitting around watching a movie. We go out and do it,” Peetz said.
Fire department officials were concerned a few years ago that changing demographics in the midvalley might deplete their ranks of volunteers. That hasn’t been the case. “People are applying for volunteer positions all the time,” Peetz said.
That is fortunate, given the growth of the Basalt-El Jebel area and the rest of the sprawling district. The department is responsible for answering calls from Sopris Mountain Ranch in the shadow of Mount Sopris to parts of Missouri Heights at the foot of Basalt Mountain.
At first blush, it appears that the department’s calls dropped in 2007. There were 610 calls last year compared to 694 the year before. That’s deceptive because the difference can be explained by a change in policy on calls from alarm companies.
The department used to respond to all alarms ” and usually spent time and effort checking out a false alarm. Now, it automatically will respond to fire alarms at schools, medical facilities and other institutions, but it won’t respond to single fire alarms at residences, Thompson said. It wants the alarm companies to take more responsibility checking the validity of the alarms since so many are false, he said. Basalt’s new policy mirrors that of Aspen’s department.
Thompson said the 84 fewer calls for the department in 2007 directly hinge to that change in policy on alarms.
Although the number of actual calls was unchanged from 2006 to 2007, Thompson and Peetz said the nature of the calls is changing. The number of serious calls has increased.
The fire district’s managers and board of directors feel that the key to keeping pace with the demand is to ensure that core staff is stable. A paid paramedic is at the El Jebel station and available for calls 24 hours per day. A paid firefighter also is on hand each day. The district wants to keep it that way, so it is prepared to invest in affordable housing.
The board of directors decided not to decrease the tax mill levy for this year. Instead, it will use $437,761 in extra revenue raised primarily by keeping the mill levy the same and use it for housing. The Willits Town Center developers have promised to sell two condominiums to the fire district at cost. In addition, the district is looking at remodeling its substations in Basalt and Old Snowmass to add housing units.
The extra revenues will be banked and dedicated to the housing plan, Thompson said. He credited the board for working on a housing solution before there is a critical problem.
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There is a lot of pent up energy among hikers and bikers to get into the high country, but snow fields, avalanche debris and high stream crossings are presenting challenges later than usual. Forest rangers with the Aspen-Sopris District provide trail condition reports that are updated each week so hikers and backpackers aren’t caught unaware.