Snowmass Fire hires a valley native
The Aspen Times
The Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District has hired a deputy chief, and he has a name many valley residents will recognize.
Rob Willits, who grew up across the street from the Basalt area now named after his family, started in the new position on May 27. He and his family are relocating from Rifle, where he most recently worked as a division chief at Colorado River Fire Rescue, serving Rifle, Silt and New Castle.
In the new position, Willits will oversee daily operations and administrative, financial and personnel management at the Snowmass firehouse. The district has been considering adding the position for a number of years, and it’s particularly important now that Snowmass is sharing a chief with the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District.
“It’s necessary for me to succeed in what we’re trying to do,” joint Chief Scott Thompson said. “They’re very light administratively up in Snowmass and heavy on operations, so we need more oversight.”
Willits’ position eventually will include training, too, but for now, the department needs his help more with administration, Thompson said.
Many qualified individuals applied for the position, including three current crew members, Thompson said.
“That was a really difficult decision for me,” Thompson said. “But I think in the overall picture, what we’re looking and what we’re striving to become, Rob was a better choice for the organization right now.”
Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal John Mele will remain in charge of fire prevention and inspections. In their deputy positions, Mele and Willits have the ability to make certain decisions in the chief’s absence, Thompson said.
Willits began working in emergency medical services on the Front Range 22 years ago. He and his family moved to Rifle in 2001, where he started his fire career as a volunteer.
Colorado River Fire Rescue runs ambulances and responds to fire calls, just as Snowmass does, but the type of calls in a resort community are pretty different, Willits said.
“The call types are different because of a little bit different population and especially the fluctuation in population,” Willits said. “Especially when you’re talking about big events and expectation for a few things coming up this fall, where 15, 20, 25 thousand people (will be) just in town for that event, that makes a big difference in those small stretches of time how we’re going to operate.”
Willits, whose family started homesteading in the valley in the mid 1880s, said it feels good to come home.
“I think the department is in a great place, and it’s going in a great direction, and I think I can help that,” Willits said. “It’s a great opportunity with a really good department, and I’m excited for that.”
Willits will be compensated $90,514 annually.
Thompson started in the joint position this winter after Snowmass board President Bill Boineau approached him with the idea. Snowmass’ chief position had been open since August, when Steve Sowles resigned. Sowles’ management came under the spotlight last year when firefighters filed two grievances against him with the board and discussed it publicly in local newspapers.
The Basalt and Snowmass crews had a joint leadership-training program in December that helped identify some issues, Thompson said.
“We’re working on some of those things and making small changes, and I think the firefighters are starting to gain some trust in me and hopefully now in Rob,” Thompson said.
One of those changes included transitioning all firefighters to a 48-hours-on, 96-hours-off schedule, which boosts morale for crew members who were looking for that change and also benefits the community, Thompson said.
“If we’re having an issue with a fire alarm or if a citizen’s having ongoing problems, we can deal with that,” Thompson said. “It makes (firefighters) more efficient. … Instead of passing the problem to the next shift coming on, they go out and resolve it, which is a really positive thing for the community.”
Snowmass is one of the last departments in western Colorado to switch to a 48-96 schedule, Thompson said. The change also helps firefighters who want to work part time at another department because their schedules will complement each other.
Boineau was one of the board members who was hesitant to switch to the schedule, even though he said some firefighters were “begging” for it. He was concerned that firefighters wouldn’t be available if needed outside their shifts, particularly if they took second jobs.
“I was one of the ones saying, ‘No, let’s wait a little bit; I want to see what kind of benefits there are to the community and what the negatives are,’” Boineau said.
However, firefighters presented their case to the board at a recent meeting and showed that the schedule wouldn’t cost more taxpayer dollars and might possibly even save some, Boineau said.
“So far everyone’s pretty excited about that,” Boineau said.
In addition to Willits’ position, the two fire boards are considering other positions that could be shared, such as a human resources professional as well as how they can fill other needs lacking in the departments, Boineau said.
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