Colorado River Fire Rescue prepares for service reduction
Colorado River Fire Rescue has seen an 11% increase in calls over last year so far — an increase that has the fire district working on a new staffing model to cover the district’s 851 square miles, and serve the communities of Rifle, Silt and New Castle.
“This last two weeks has been unusually busy, and yet our calls are going up,” CRFR Fire Chief Callahan said.
He believes that the call level is part of their new normal, as the area grows and more 911 calls for service come.
Callahan said that over the last year and a half they have been focused on budget cuts, sold surplus apparatus, repurposed other apparatus. The staff is currently working on combining roles of the administrative staff.
“I look at some of the decisions we are being faced with, and for me they’re the toughest of my career,” Callahan said. “All the efforts we have taken in the last 18 months was to save firefighting staff, and with the mill levy not going through we are now at the point of cutting firefighter staffing.”
Just over two months ago voters defeated the fire district’s ballot measure that would have added 6.099 mills to the current levy, bringing on nearly $4.72 million to help balance the budget.
“Our commitment is to be fiscally responsible to our constituents, and to be transparent in our actions,” Callahan said. “The community has spoken, and we’re following that. We are looking at anything we can do during this time.”
CRFR is currently running four engines and four ambulances in the system. With the budget cuts they will drop to three engines and three ambulances.
“With every tough time there is an opportunity. We are looking for that opportunity to present itself,” Callahan said. “At this point I cannot find any way around service level reduction, which means we will lose an ambulance and engine company.”
With calls up, Callahan is concerned about all the volume coming in and the stress it has put on the district. In 2019, CRFR had two or more calls at the same time 19% of the time, this year it is up to 21.5%.
CRFR has depended on mutual aid from neighboring districts and communities, but Callahan said other agencies are busy and going through financial challenges as well.
“We are all getting so stressed, that there already have been and there will be more times that we are not available to help our neighbors,” Callahan said.
The new staffing model and reduction of service will reduce the overtime staff had been running to fill in for the positions that have been open since last year.
CRFR has six fire stations, four of which they staff. Another is leased out to Interagency Fire, and one is unmanned. CRFR is evaluating numbers and data trying to decide which station has the least amount of impact on the system.
“We have four stations to work with, and unfortunately we are going to lose one of those most likely,” Callahan said.
With the reduction in staffing decision one of the two Rifle fire stations will be targeted for closure.
By the end of the year CRFR will go from five to three division chiefs, and combine finance and human resources positions. The cuts will take seven positions and combine them into four. The six positions that have remained empty due to attrition will not be filled.
“We have been fortunate that this will be through attrition with positions they have held open for the last year,” Callahan said. “Our concern as we are doing this and with our funding issues is retention and possibility of losing more of our staff.”
Callahan said the changes would be complete when he hangs up his turnouts for the final time and departs after a 44-year career in the fire service and two years at the helm of CRFR.
“The plan is for a leadership transition. While I’m excited it’s been a great career, and I want to make retirement a joyous event, I’m also disappointed it’s connected to budget cuts,” Callahan said. “I will say working at CRFR has been the pinnacle of my career. The folks here have an unstoppable heart and soul. Funding challenges won’t change that. It will change how we do things, but it won’t change our commitment.”
Operations Division Chief Leif Sackett will take over for Callahan as the fire chief upon his retirement.
“It’s been a very long and honorable career — I’m a second generation firefighter. It’s what I know, and I look forward to what is tomorrow,” Callahan said. “And I’m excited to spend more time with my wife.”
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