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Survey says Aspen firefighters want priority on leadership

As part of strategic planning process, community and firefighters weigh in on what they want for the future

Aspen Volunteer Fire Department on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The results of an internal survey of Aspen firefighters and staff show that the majority of them believe leadership within the organization needs to be prioritized.

The survey was conducted as part of the Aspen Fire Protection District’s strategic planning process in which staff and firefighters are participating in a two-day retreat this week on Friday and Saturday.

The process will lead to a strategic plan with about a half dozen initiatives to be carried out, and is being led by Rich Buchanan, project manager for AP Triton Consulting Inc.



The district hired the Sacramento, California-based consulting firm for $20,000 to manage the process and deliver a strategic plan.

It comes a year after Buchanan, on behalf of a different consulting firm, prepared an assessment of the fire district and department, and suggested many areas of improvement.




Of Aspen Fire’s 54 paid and volunteer firefighters and staff members at the time of the survey, 39 responded via an online forum anonymously.

When asked what their priorities are, 16% said leadership issues. That is the highest priority ranked in the survey, with the next top issue, officer development, at 11%. Improved communications was the third highest priority at 9%.

“They wanted officer leadership, there was leadership and communication, and ‘we’re not following the chain of command,’” Buchanan told the fire district board on Thursday during a presentation of the survey results. “They definitely don’t believe that internally, the department is communicating as well as it could on all levels.”

Buchanan suggested that leadership could be an initiative for the strategic plan, with goals attached that revolve around officer development and communication.

He also said firefighters and staff intimated through the survey that they want more communication from the board.

“They definitely want to know what you are doing so it could tie back to the improved communication but since they put the word ‘board’ I separated it out,” Buchanan said.

While there is a hierarchy to follow within the institution and firefighters should first go to their supervisors, but in recent months they have approached board members to discuss leadership issues they have with Fire Chief Rick Balentine.

While he wasn’t specifically addressing specific issues with leadership at Aspen Fire, Buchanan said the board might want to consider how to handle it in the future.

“It’s something for you to think about that there’s got to be a system,” he said, noting that issues that go unaddressed create morale issues.

Morale ranked at 4% as a priority among firefighters in the survey.

Firefighters also wanted to prioritize retaining and recruiting enough volunteers to keep staffing levels up, and want the district to do more planning for the future, which Buchanan said is the goal of the strategic plan.

Just as the community survey shows that the majority of respondents believe the district is fiscally responsible, so do firefighters and staff.

Between 70 and 80 people took the online community survey, and the majority of them, 46%, said they were satisfied with Aspen Fire’s services.

Community members want Aspen Fire to prioritize responding to calls in a professional manner, have a highly trained staff and improve response times, among other initiatives.

When asked in the survey, 42% want six-minute response times; 31% think eight minutes is acceptable; and another 26% want four-minute response to a call.

Buchanan said costs for more fire stations, the rural nature of Pitkin County and weather all play a role in Aspen Fire’s response times.

The department, at the suggestion of Buchanan’s May 2020 assessment report, hired paid firefighters so that stations are manned 24/7 in an effort to improve response times.

Buchanan complimented the board for acting quickly on the assessment and following through on a strategic plan.

“You guys have made a great deal of progress … most organizations don’t do this as methodically, they’re reactive,” he said. “You have been working on this carefully for almost two years and this shows that it’s not a reactive process but you’re being proactive.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com

 


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