Roaring Fork Fire’s new deputy chief is right where he always wanted to be |

Roaring Fork Fire’s new deputy chief is right where he always wanted to be

Richard Cornelius aspired to be a firefighter from a young age

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue deputy chief of operations Richard Cornelius stands next to a firetruck at the El Jebel station on Tuesday, Aug. 31.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Lots of kids in elementary school claim they want to be firefighters when they grow up. Richard Cornelius said it and meant it.

“My whole life — that’s all I wanted to do from a very early age,” he said.

He has successfully pursued his dream. Cornelius, 37, has spent 20 years in fire services, starting with Carbondale Fire Department as a paramedic in 2001. He joined the Basalt Fire Department as a part-time paramedic in April 2012 and was hired as a full-time division chief for emergency medical services Sept. 1, 2013.

Last week, Cornelius was named deputy fire chief for operations for Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, the combined departments of Basalt and Snowmass Village.

“Richard has really set himself up for this position,” Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Tuesday.

In addition to running EMS operations for the department for more than seven years, Cornelius has demonstrated a knack for collaboration on local, regional and statewide efforts, the chief said. Cornelius also is in a good position to attend the executive fire officer program, a three-year training program that is like a master’s degree in firefighting.

Cornelius was selected after he scored highest among candidates in an assessment process that involved fire district personnel and high-ranking officials from outside organizations, such as the Eagle County undersheriff and mayor of Basalt.

It’s been a smooth transition for him in the new post. As division chief, Cornelius oversaw medical services. As deputy chief, he will oversee all operations.

He’s got plenty of issues vying for his time. “It’s crazy busy,” he said.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue has responded to 1,404 total incidents between Jan. 1 and July 31 this year. That is up nearly 24% from 1,134 incidents over the same period in 2020. The majority of calls are for medical issues.

Even if the unusual pandemic year of 2020 is tossed, the district is up by 169 incidents through July 31 compared with 2019, so the trend appears established.

The growth of the midvalley population is expected to fuel continued increases in demands for services from Roaring Fork Fire Rescue. In the near future, 110 residential units will be added at Stott’s Mill in Basalt’s Southside neighborhood; 340 residences, including a 72-unit senior living complex, and a 122-room hotel are under construction at Ace Lane’s Tree Farm project in El Jebel; 155 residences are proposed in the final piece of the Willits residential development; a proposal is pending for 70 apartments in the core of Basalt; and a proposal is pending for 135 residences at The Fields, across Highway 82 from the Blue Lake subdivision entrance.

“The area is exploding. I feel there’s more people in the community,” Cornelius said. “It’s going to have a big impact on us.”

The fire district is working on strategic and master plans to determine staffing and equipment necessary to keep up with the demand.

Between Basalt and Snowmass Village, the district has 115 personnel, including 49 volunteers. Every day it staffs three shifts with nine full-time responders on each shift. Staying fully staffed has been challenging, Cornelius said. Like nearly all employers, the fire district relies on workers commuting from outside its boundaries. Firefighters are reporting for duty from as far away as Parachute and Gunnison.

One key to attracting workers in a tight housing market is providing affordable housing. The fire district has two residences in El Jebel, two in Willits, four at the Basalt fire station, one in the Old Snowmass station and six in the Snowmass Village station as well as one executive housing residence in Snowmass Village. The district is working on funding to include three residences in a new substation proposed at Mount Sopris Ranch on West Sopris Creek Road.

Cornelius is up for the challenge that the job brings.

“You’re never really too stagnant,” he said. “It’s always changing.”

The public service component is a big reason he was attracted to firefighting and why he enjoys the job. First responders are regularly credited with saving lives of heart attack victims, preventing the spread of wildfires and snuffing structure fires.

“It’s really neat to see those things that our staff is doing to make an impact on people’s lives,” Cornelius said.

Thompson said he has a few years left before he retires. He views Cornelius’ promotion also as a chance to be in the line of succession as fire chief. That decision will be made, when the time comes, by the district’s board of directors.

“He’s really set up to be the next fire chief, in my book,” Thompson said.

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