It’s recruiting season for Aspen Fire, which depends largely on volunteers
How does a majority-volunteer department function in a world-class resort town?
When it’s time to clean the bay floors, Aspen Fire Department firefighters park the big, red trucks on their driveway, gleaming for passersby to admire. Families stop so their kids can take a picture and get a plastic helmet, or a curious old-timer might ask a firefighter about the mechanics of the trucks.
There’s no way to tell if that firefighter posing with the kids or explaining the mechanics of firefighting equipment is a volunteer or a paid employee of the department — or as they call them internally, a “career” — unless you ask. And that’s how they like it.
“We are dressed the same. We go through the same training. We trust each other. And there’s nothing on our jackets that says ‘I’m a volunteer’ and ‘I’m a career.’ There is no difference,” said Adam Cohen, a volunteer firefighter of six years and a volunteer representative.
Volunteers go through about a year of training before they are fully-fledged firefighters. For careers, it’s more or less the same. And they all have to stay up-to-date with mandated certifications like Hazardous Materials or Firefighter I or II.
“We require all of our volunteers to be at the same training levels as career firefighters. Now there’s different levels, some of the careers or volunteers may choose to go for more in-depth training, whether it’s engineering, fire officer or different things,” said Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine. “But all of those options are open for every career and volunteer. Exactly the same.”
Nationally, volunteer fire departments are much more common than departments with only full-time employees. Recruitment is difficult for many of those departments, Balentine said, but Aspen’s long history as a volunteer department created a community culture of willingness to support Aspen Fire.
Aspen Fire Department started in 1881, back when the only paid employees were the fire chief and a janitor. For more than 130 years, Aspen’s firefighters were all volunteers.
That dynamic changed in 2020 when the Aspen Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted to allow the hiring of full-time, paid firefighters. Proponents said the new hires would improve response times, support the volunteers, and meet the needs of a rapidly growing community. Some detractors grumbled about changing dynamics.
Today, Aspen Fire employs 15 career firefighters and has a roster of 44 volunteer firefighters. Staffing standards come from both federal and state guidelines, Balentine said, and each station will almost always have at least one career and three volunteers at any given time.
And the department has every intention to keep recruiting volunteers to maintain that approximate 1:4 ratio.
“My goal is to continue the tradition and keep a strong volunteer model well into the future,” said Balentine, who has been the fire chief since 2014. He volunteered for the department for 24 years before that.
To do that, the department recruits a new class of volunteers every year. They host an informational meeting in the fall, then an interview process, then observational shifts at the stations, then a semester-long class (known as ‘fire academy’) at Colorado Mountain College.
Balentine estimated that each class sees about eight new volunteer recruits.
Regionally, volunteer forces are smaller. Lieutenant Will Shoesmith started his career at Snowmass Wildcat Fire Protection District, which combined with Basalt to become Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority. He said Roaring Fork Fire and Carbondale Fire Protection District do not have the same volunteer tradition.
“Aspen was the town, (Basalt and Carbondale) were two cow towns back in 1881. There wasn’t much to it,” Shoesmith said. “That history is something that I think a lot of volunteers have really taken a hold of, which is what has given Aspen Fire that rich legacy people want to continue, which has given that foundation (for) such a strong volunteer presence.”
How the culture, community — and healthcare — attract and retain volunteers
Just by looking at them, clocking a volunteer versus a career is nearly impossible. They all wear Aspen Fire t-shirts, tactical pants and shoes, and have radios or other equipment draped across their torsos.
Time served might be the best metric to differentiate, as the careers have only been working under Aspen Fire for about two years. But many careers were hired out of volunteering, or were lateral hires with long careers with other departments.
Firefighter/EMT Jack Dorsi worked in the hospitality industry when he started volunteering for the department in 2020. Then in March 2022, he was hired for a full-time position.
As a newer career in a department stacked with volunteers who have 20 or 30 years of service under their belts, Dorsi said learning opportunities come from everyone.
“The fire industry and fire service in general, is just kind of a never ending school. There’s always something more to learn,” Dorsi said. “And I get a lot of great advice from volunteers that have been around for so long, as well as career folks.”
The time commitment between volunteers and careers is where they diverge. Volunteers are required to work one 24-hour duty shift (be present in the fire station) a month, respond to 25% of all-calls, and make a good effort to attend public education events.
Careers work shifts of 48 hours on, 96 hours off. Balentine said that model is basically an industry standard.
Volunteers come from all kinds of backgrounds. Ski patrollers, property managers, bartenders, hairdressers (though Balentine noted that he doesn’t think any current volunteers work as hairdressers, they have before) all choose to contribute time and labor to the department.
Cohen, the volunteer representative, helps other volunteers navigate their certifications and shift commitments. He said that everyone has their own version of making it work financially, but locals know the deal.
“I’m a property manager and a volunteer firefighter (in the day). I drive the snowcat in the winter for Cloud Nine dinner service — it’s not the ‘vomit comet’ … it’s the night one, not the day one,” Cohen joked. “So you come here and you have to figure out the Aspen hustle.”
In 2009, the state legislature passed a law allowing fire departments to offer healthcare plans to their volunteers. Balentine said Aspen was one of the first to take advantage of it and has offered healthcare. And a 2019 FEMA grant for $1.3 million will help fund the volunteers’ healthcare for a few years, plus some equipment.
According to Nikki Lapin, human resources director for the district, 39% of volunteers take full health/vision/dental insurance, 20% receive either an HSA or HRA contribution (as they have other insurance through another employer and/or spouse), and the remaining 41% are not eligible due to participation level plan, currently in training and/or may be on leave of absence.
The average age of volunteers is 46, with 11% female and 89% male.
And in 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a mill levy increase to help fund the construction of the North 40 housing complex, which offers 15 units designated for Aspen Fire employees and qualified volunteers.
The incentives definitely draw in new recruits, especially as cost of living skyrockets and the scarcity of affordable housing drives out working-class people. But Cohen, and most volunteers, will say the camaraderie within the department and giving back to the community are why they continue to give time and labor to Aspen Fire.
“Some of us get health insurance, some of them get an HSA. Whatever any of us gets, it’s awesome,” Cohen said. “But many of us didn’t join for anything other than just helping the community.”
A new recruit makes her way through the certification process
Sara Fioretti is a 20-something making a life in the Roaring Fork Valley after the pandemic interrupted her proverbial ski-bum winter and altered her life plans. Her version of the “Aspen hustle” is centered around service. She works as a ski patroller in the winter, a ranger with Pitkin County in the summer, squeezed in fire academy January-May, and now volunteers for at least three 10-hour shifts a month at Aspen Fire while she finishes her task book of certifications.
“There were times (during fire academy) where you absolutely were just losing it and you were just totally sick of it. You’re so tired, but the camaraderie was great,” she said. “A few of us all carpooled in one of the fire trucks every day. So it was like our carpool therapy session every time.”
Since graduation, she has worked through a thick binder of requirements to earn status as a volunteer firefighter. Some of it was reading-based, which she completed before the academy. Some requirements were satisfied through the academy. And the rest, she said, she has slowly checked off during her shifts.
“You go to academy, and you learn how to become a firefighter,” Fioretti said. “And then you come back to your station, and then you have to learn how to be an Aspen firefighter.”
Though she already has secure housing, she definitely plans to enroll in the healthcare plan once fully-certified and eligible. As long as her wildland field test, a 3-mile walk with a 45-pound vest on to be completed in 45 minutes, goes well, she’s on track to complete her task book soon.
Men vastly outnumber women amongst the firefighters, but Fioretti said that has never phased her. She might need to adjust her style of throwing a 24-foot ladder as a short woman compared to 6’3″ men, but that’s about it.
“It’s just like a cool community. I am tutoring one of the guys’ daughters in chemistry. And I worked for another guy cutting trees, because I got my chainsaw certification this year and wanted to practice,” she said. “It’s cool to be a part of that. And then also give back to the community at same time.”
The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.