Snowmass Wildcat Fire Protection District considers hiring mediator
The Snowmass Wildcat Fire Protection District board is considering hiring a third-party mediator to help resolve conflicts between staff and the department’s leadership.
The discussion comes after the board spent hours in meetings with Snowmass firefighters, some of whom earlier this year filed two grievances with the board regarding the management under Chief Steve Sowles, accusing him of creating a “hostile working environment.” Initially, the board denied the firefighters’ request for a third-party mediator to help find a resolution and scheduled meetings with individual employees.
Board President Bill Boineau said he and board member Brian Olson spent more than 30 hours meeting with individual firefighters and “have not come up with any major findings,” although he did say communication issues surfaced. Now, the board is discussing hiring a company that works in conflict resolution to act as a mediator and help it determine an appropriate course of action.
“We still have some more work to do,” Boineau said.
Jacob Heal and Jake Andersen, president and vice president of the Snowmass Firefighters Union, said they appreciate the board for listening to their concerns.
“We are especially grateful for the personal time that Mr. Olsen (sic) and Mr. Boineau sacrificed to hear us out,” they said in an email statement. “There has been no definitive plan relayed to us and no timeline set toward addressing departmental issues. We continue to believe that neutral third party intervention is necessary to address the hostile work environment.”
The men also said that three employees have quit or given notice of resignation since the grievances were filed, including the most senior firefighter/paramedic. Chief Steven Sowles said Greg Garwood submitted his resignation and is going to work at the Rifle Fire Protection District, where he has worked part time. Sowles said he is aware of another person who might have gotten accepted to medical school but hasn’t received any other notices of resignation.
“If they’re not happy, I would encourage it,” he said.
Another issue that came up often in those meetings was the way the department handled an incident last summer, according to Boineau. Some firefighters were helping fight a blaze in another jurisdiction, and an official complained to the Snowmass fire district that some of its employees had been drinking in camp. Two firefighters were suspended after the incident.
Boineau said that in the past, firefighters were only paid during the hours they were actively working on a fire outside the district, but now they are paid for the entirety of their time away. The board has since decided to alter its policy to specifically address conduct on calls outside the district. Some firefighters told Boineau that they thought no disciplinary action should have been taken because the policy wasn’t specific at the time, he said.
“Part of our policy in the past wasn’t clear,” Boineau said. “We changed the policy after that. … We wanted to make it crystal clear.”
Boineau said he believes the atmosphere at the department will soon be “not as adversarial as it was.” Some people just might not be happy at the district, he said.
“If you’re not happy with your job, you need to find another job,” Boineau said.
Heal and Andersen said, “We understand that the issues being dealt with are deep seated and complex. We remain cautiously optimistic and will remain hopeful for a positive outcome in spite of the difficulties we face in this toxic work environment and the fact that the district continues to hemorrhage good employees because of it. The interviews are a great start but we are anxious to hear a definitive plan of action and a timeline regarding the dire state of the organization and a resolution of these issues.”
Boineau said the board still plans to hire a new training officer, although it hasn’t started searching yet.
“All indications that we have been given, still point to the creation of an additional chief position,” Andersen and Heal wrote. “We continue to oppose this position after the passing of our ‘no growth’ ballot measure.”
The new position would be an operations training officer and possible successor to Fire Marshal John Mele, 62, fire officials told the Snowmass Sun in March. Voters approved a “no growth” mill-levy increase for the district’s funding in November.
Boineau said he thinks training of fire personnel needs to be improved, especially since they don’t experience fighting live fires very often.
“I’d love to find some way to have better training throughout the valley,” Boineau said. “Is there a way that we can put together a facility that is a fire and medical training (center)?”
Boineau asked at the May 20 Town Council meeting if it would be possible for Snowmass Village to join such an effort. Town Manager Russ Forrest told him the ideal forum to discuss that might be the Pitkin County Public Safety Council.
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