Snowmass, Basalt share most resources under Roaring Fork Fire Rescue agreement | AspenTimes.com
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Snowmass, Basalt share most resources under Roaring Fork Fire Rescue agreement

Board determines funding allocations; battalion chief determines staffing

Roaring Fork Fire Station 45 in Snowmass Village on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Between the Snowmass-Wildcat and Basalt and Rural fire protection districts, there’s a lot to share.

The districts agreed to join forces and resources in 2018 with the formation of the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, which is led by Fire Chief Scott Thompson. The merger officially took effect in 2019, with most administration, leadership, staff, volunteers, equipment and financial assets becoming shared resources under the umbrella of the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue.

How those resources are allocated depends on what the resources are, and each district has minimum staffing requirements and certain equipment housed at each station, Thompson explained in an interview on April 19 and series of subsequent emails throughout the week.



Board of Directors

Each district has its own five-member board of directors, and three representatives from each of those district boards serve on the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority board.

There were three seats up for reelection on the Basalt Fire board and three seats up for reelection on the Snowmass Fire board. No one ran against any of the three incumbents in Basalt, so Ed Van Walraven, John Young and Vonda Williams retained their seats, according to designated election official Susan Herwick.




In Snowmass, the district will hold its first contested election since 2006 this year, Herwick wrote in an email. (Election Day is May 3, with voting at the Snowmass fire station.)

Incumbents William (Bill) Boineau and Elizabeth (Ellie) Striegler are on the ballot alongside newcomers Greg Balko and Scott Arthur. Both Balko and Arthur have expressed concerns about the way that resources like funding and staffing are allocated between the districts and how that impacts the level of service at Snowmass Fire.

The Roaring Fork Fire Rescue board determines how to distribute funding throughout the authority’s coverage area, which includes Snowmass Village, Basalt and the surrounding areas.

Funding

Each district collects property taxes and contributes that money as revenue to the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority. Snowmass has a lower tax rate than Basalt — 6.601 mills compared with 7.85 mills in 2022 to support the general fund — but Snowmass contributed a higher dollar amount to that fund for the first few years that the authority existed because of a higher overall property value, according to Thompson.

That’s set to change in 2022, with Basalt budgeted to contribute $3.5 million and Snowmass budgeted to contribute $3.4 million, according to the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue budget for this year. Thompson attributed the change to growth downvalley. Other sources of revenue for the authority include restricted income like impact fees and unrestricted income like plan fees and ambulance charges.

Some financial resources, like legal fees, audit fees, retirement accounts and mill levies to support district-specific bond measures, remain with those districts, according to Thompson.

The authority’s cash on hand in 2019 came from transfers from each of the districts, too.

Snowmass Fire had $4.8 million in cash on hand and Basalt Fire had $3.1 million in cash on hand that was transferred throughout 2019 to the collective Roaring Fork Fire cash-on-hand coffers, according to amended budget filings with the state for each district and clarifying emails from the authority’s finance director Jennifer Thompson.

The transfer was part of “the initial combining of District funds and assets to create RFFRA,” she wrote in an email, and it became unrestricted operational reserves for the authority. It was a one-time transfer, not a recurring source of revenue like property taxes, and did not show up as an amendment or supplement to the Roaring Fork Fire budget in 2019.

“Since this was all revenue driven, a supplemental budget was not required for RFFRA,” she wrote in an email.

Each district still keeps its own carryover of funds on hand for unexpected expenses, she wrote. Budget documents indicate that carryover for each district is usually in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

Staffing

Prior to the merger, Basalt Fire staffed two full-time equivalent paid operations staff per shift, supplemented by a deputy chief, fire marshal and emergency medical services chief, according to an email from Chief Thompson. The district had four to five part-time staff and about 50 volunteers.

Snowmass Fire staffed five full-time equivalent paid operations staff per shift, and staffing minimums dropped to three in the offseason. The district had four to five part-time staff and no volunteers. The district also had some resident firefighters who were required to work shifts in exchange for housing. The district had rooms for seven resident firefighters but was never able to fill all rooms, Thompson wrote.

Across the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, there are currently 27 paid operations staff (including folks like career firefighters and paramedics). They work 48-hour shifts, then get 96 hours off; there are three shifts, each covered by nine crew members. Volunteers and part-time staff help fill in when paid staff are out sick or on vacation.

Of that nine, four are based at the Snowmass Village station and two each are based at the Basalt and El Jebel stations. (Volunteer stations at Thomasville and Old Snowmass don’t have staffing minimums.) A battalion chief who “floats” to the “area of most anticipated need” based on high skier visit days, events and other sources of demand completes that roster, according to Thompson.

The battalion chief assigns staff to stations based on credentials — Snowmass, for instance, must have a minimum of two paramedics — and a tool called “hot mapping” helps the district determine where there will be a need for additional staff based on call volume. The authority overstaffs based on the busiest times of the year, like the Christmas and New Years holidays and Presidents Day weekend and days when there are large events or extreme fire danger, according to Thompson.

Still, the authority could use more staff, especially as demand surges.

“Are we understaffed? Yeah, I think we’re understaffed on all three fire stations,” Thompson said in an interview last week. “But we’re doing the best job we can with our volunteers, our part-time and our paid staff.”

Full-time staff are often supported by volunteers and part-time operations staff. There are 35 volunteers, and most are required to complete 24 hours per month based at a fire station. There are 16 part-time operations staff, 13 of whom must work a minimum of two 24-hour shifts per month and three of whom are required to work a minimum of three 24-hour shifts because they live in Roaring Fork Fire Rescue employee housing.

The authority has 14 employee units in the valley and is building three more up West Sopris Creek Road. That will bring the total to seven in Snowmass Village and 10 located midvalley.

These staff and volunteers are not linked to a specific station, and the battalion chief determines where they’ll work on a given day. An employee might live in Roaring Fork Fire Rescue employee housing in Snowmass but get assigned shifts in Basalt or El Jebel, and vice versa. However, there is one executive unit in Snowmass — a two-bedroom condo — for the fire marshal/deputy chief to be based in the village most of the time.

The authority also has 16 administrative staff, which includes prevention, training, human resources, fleet, finance and technology staff and a medical director. These staff don’t count toward staffing minimums but can add to staffing or drive or operate fire apparatus when needed — in the case of a structure fire or a bad car accident, for instance.

Several officers have offices based in the Snowmass Village station who respond as needed. That count includes two deputy chiefs, one division chief, one training lieutenant and one fire inspector. All work four 10-hour days, with shifts staggered to ensure coverage for five days of the week, Thompson wrote.

Equipment

The Snowmass Village station is currently equipped with a ladder engine, rescue pumper, urban interface pumper, brush truck, command pickup and three ambulances. The Snowmass station does not have a water hauler because of the abundance of fire hydrants in the village.

The El Jebel station is equipped with an urban interface pumper, a rescue pumper, a brush truck, a water tender, command pickup and two ambulances.

The Basalt station is equipped with a ladder engine, rescue truck, rescue pumper, brush truck, water hauler, command pickup and one ambulance.

The Thomasville station is equipped with a pumper truck, rescue truck and brush truck. The Old Snowmass station is equipped with a pumper/tender truck. The Sopris Mountain Ranch substation now in the works will soon have a pumper and rescue truck.

There was a point during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Basalt station had two ambulances and Snowmass had two ambulances, but that distribution has shifted back to one at Basalt and three at Snowmass.

The authority sold one ladder and one tower truck from the Snowmass stock and used the proceeds from both sales to buy one new ladder for Snowmass that went into service in Snowmass in 2019, according to Thompson.

“Basalt voters pass(ed) a bond issue and we purchased a nearly identical ladder for Basalt,” he wrote in an email. Both are smaller vehicles with longer ladders, which is helpful for tight spaces and small buildings, he said in an interview.

Roaring Fork Fire Rescue uses a move-up system, so when one ambulance leaves from Snowmass, a battalion chief or officer can decide to move another ambulance up from Basalt if it looks like there will be a need for more that afternoon. There have been a handful of times in the past year that the authority has had to call Aspen Ambulance for support due to multiple emergency medical services calls and more than three calls at the same time.

Equipment purchases are considered capital purchases that come from a restricted capital fund. That fund cannot be used for payroll or equipment under $5,000, according to Thompson.

A draft master plan slated to come out this week will help the authority plan for the next five to 10 years in terms of rolling stock replacement, staffing needs, facility and equipment needs.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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