Guest commentary: Turnover plagues Snowmass Fire | AspenTimes.com
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Guest commentary: Turnover plagues Snowmass Fire

Jacob Heal
Guest Commentary

By July, the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District will have lost 11 employees in a little more than two years. The district employs only nine firefighters.

The most recent losses include: the senior firefighter/paramedic, an engineer with over five years and myself. This equates to a loss of more than 17 years of paid, full-time service and the loss of decades of future service. Add this to the dozens of careers that have ended under Chief Steve Sowles, and it is difficult to deny that there is a problem. We have been crystal-clear regarding our reasons for leaving in our exit interviews.

Firefighters here are not asking for much. We have requested an environment of fairness and honesty and an end to the hostility that has plagued the organization. We need a neutral third party to come and look at both sides. We are willing to be placed under the microscope, along with the administration, in order to find areas needing improvement. The administration is absolutely opposed to this — and for good reason. They don’t want you to know what has been happening.

Recent decisions by Sowles and his administration have resulted in two investigations by two federal entities. Firefighters attempted to address concerns internally in both cases. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating the termination of an employee with a learning disability. To combat this, the fire district has had to hire a large law firm out of Denver. We feel this is an extremely poor use of taxpayer funds.

When the chief states that “we have insurance for that,” he is acting irresponsibly. The evidence against the district in this case is overwhelming. Many have started to wonder if the board members have been told the truth regarding the termination.

The firefighters also internally addressed the issue of an unpermitted and illegally installed dry well in the rear of the station. The waste runoff from the apparatus bays leaches into the ground just a few hundred feet from Brush Creek. Firefighters will not allow district administration to damage our beautiful environment. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is dealing with the issue, and we are hopeful that we will be back within the bounds of the law and the pollution will be halted soon.

We are not asking for more pay. In fact, at the June 2012 board meeting, firefighters unanimously voted to give back their 4 percent increase upon hearing of the financial difficulties the district found itself in. Sowles declined the offer. In fact, the union has never asked for more money.

Recently, board President Bill Boineau was quoted in the paper that the board was considering replacing the deputy chief with a training/operations chief. The firefighters will support this. However, we do not support the hiring of an additional chief after the passing of a “no growth” measure in November. Taxpayers didn’t vote to add positions.

The administration has implied that firefighters are not united on the hiring of a third-party mediator. This is false. The union members unanimously support the hiring of a mediator. Some of the firefighters requested that grievances be submitted anonymously for fear of retaliation. For the same reason, they did not want the union addressing the media. However, a large majority still felt the public deserved to know and voted that we contact the media. The fear of retaliation has been justified recently as the administration has targeted union Vice President Jake Andersen for speaking out against them. Following these articles, administrators have reinterpreted or “clarified” policies, resulting in a loss of 4 percent of his pay. Now he is held to certification standards that other employees were not.

When I worked with firefighter Andersen for the Tucson Fire Department, he was one of their most valued employees. He was nominated for firefighter of the year for the state of Arizona. He was voted the most exceptional recruit by his fire-academy peers and the nationally recognized training staff. The deputy chief of operations from Tucson told me that he has nothing but the highest praise for Andersen because of his exceptional character. Here, he is referred to as a “loose cannon” and is being pressured to quit because of his strong advocacy for our community and the belief that the public deserves better. Currently, the administration is compiling documentation and exaggerating documentation in order to justify his termination.

As the administration tries to distract you from its lies and unethical behavior, we ask the community to remain focused on the real issues.

Jacob Heal is president of Snowmass Firefighters Local 4327.


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