Jake Anderson: Guest Opinion

Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Snowmass firefighters are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.

Emergency response is hard work. It is dangerous, and it is sometimes deadly. We risk our lives to keep our community safe because that’s our job and, more importantly, because we want to protect our beautiful community and our residents.

The professional full-time firefighters, paramedics and engineers of the Snowmass Firefighters Union Local 4327 are a non-bargaining entity. This means that we do not negotiate pay, benefits or anything else with the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District.

The firefighters of Local 4327 want to go on the record about some important issues regarding the fire department, and we hope the community explores our concerns and demands answers.

As the Aspen Daily News recently reported, Snowmass firefighters have filed grievances with the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District regarding the management of the department under Fire Chief Steven Sowles.

The fire chief’s management has eroded staff morale and created a hostile working environment that, we believe, threatens the safety of the public. The board of directors responded to our grievances stating that “this does not fit with Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District’s formal grievance procedure.” It offered that statement as well as denying our request for a neutral third party to evaluate the district and mediate between all employees. This is disappointing to us as we feel that without a neutral party, employees will be unwilling to speak freely regarding what concerns they have for fear of retribution.

The district’s board of directors stated that they would appoint a board member to hear concerns but gave no timeline or name for this appointee. Once again, we feel that bias would play a large role in whichever conversation occurs, and we are concerned about the lack of a timeline, as well.

Deteriorating labor-management relations have led to a very high turnover rate within the department. This lack of continuity and experience does in fact weaken our community’s public safety.

The vast majority of firefighter/paramedic positions have turned over in the past few years. Most of this is due to employees simply quitting and moving on, but one firefighter, Shawn Foster, who has a diagnosed learning disability, was fired after being harassed for years. His termination has led to a discrimination complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to a source within the commission, the fire district was offered a person to mediate between the district and Foster. The commission received no response from the district, so an official investigator has been assigned to the case. The union and the government await an explanation from the district.

Another pressing concern is the fire department’s financial dealings and actions with regard to the mill levy that was approved in November, which we supported because the fire district promised that funding would be used to maintain the current quality of service without adding personnel to the department. The fire chief said that without this levy, there would be layoffs in the department.

Following passage of the levy, Sowles said in December that the department is not in a deficit and that there was actually a substantial surplus from the 2012 budget. He then announced plans to create a new deputy fire chief position.

This position would likely come with a substantial salary and benefits package along with a command-style SUV, which costs substantial taxpayer dollars, as well.

This issue is of great concern to us because just last year we joined the fire chief in urging voters to support the mill levy and raise taxes to keep the fire department operating safely and efficiently. Now it appears taxpayers are being misled. I can assure you that firefighters would not have supported the levy if we had known that Sowles and Deputy Chief John Mele had these plans in mind.

We are outraged by this new course of action by district management and ask the community to demand answers about this surplus and how money from the mill levy is being spent. We have passed our concerns on to our captains regarding this issue, and those concerns have been ignored.

The residents and firefighters of Snowmass Village deserve better leadership than this.

Snowmass firefighters will always be there for the community, and our primary concern is the safety and welfare of the people who live and work here. We are calling on you to join us and demand a professionally managed department that is held accountable and respects the community we serve.

For more information about the Snowmass Firefighters Union or to ask us questions or leave comments, we invite you to visit us at

Jack Anderson is vice president of Snowmass Firefighters Local 4327.