Area public safety leaders: Aspen Fire chief’s comments, approach are a problem
A generally innocuous cog in the bureaucratic machine of local governance has exposed a long-simmering rift between Aspen’s fire chief and the leaders of the airport, Pitkin County and three local public safety agencies.
The rift includes charges that Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine is an uncooperative fear-monger bent on undermining the authority of those other agencies, and could result in the Aspen Fire Department being left out of any future firefighting duties at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, which is located within AFD’s district.
“Chief Balentine has chosen to be an outlier in this tightknit (public safety) community and has relationship issues with not only me, but other fire and ambulance districts and now he has set his sights on the airport,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to Aspen Fire Department Board member Stoney Davis. “For an inexplicable reason Chief Balentine needs to continually tell this community and visitors they are not safe as is the case with his recent airport comments.
“In my opinion this is irresponsible and dangerous.”
DiSalvo said Balentine “does not have a positive working relationship” with the Sheriff’s Office, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, Aspen Ambulance District Director Gabe Muething and Aspen airport Director John Kinney. Thompson, Muething and Kinney all confirmed the rift in separate interviews and said they supported the sentiments expressed in DiSalvo’s letter, which The Aspen Times obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
“It’s just Rick Balentine by himself,” Thompson said in an interview last week. “There’s no problems with any other public safety officials. Everyone gets along. We don’t question each other’s authority. Rick is just the opposite.
“This has been going on since day one (of Balentine’s tenure as chief).”
For his part, Balentine, who’s been chief since 2014, said he hadn’t read DiSalvo’s letter and isn’t sure why or where they got crosswise.
“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Balentine said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
He also declined to comment on charges that he’s uncooperative and unnecessarily spreads fear.
“My job is to look out for the citizens of our district and that’s what I’m doing,” Balentine said. “I’m not going to sit here and talk bad about those guys.”
AN M-O-U IN LIMBO
The rift has gone public thanks to comments — reported in the Aspen Daily News — that Balentine and other fire officials made at a Sept. 11 Aspen Fire Department Board meeting about a proposed mutual aid agreement between the airport, the county and the fire district.
The subject that provoked the comments was a so-called “Memo of Understanding” among the Aspen Fire District, the airport, every other public safety agency in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley and Pitkin County, which owns and operates the airport. The document is the sort of routine business done daily among governments and government agencies across the country, and is essentially a contract ensuring the agencies will respond to an emergency at the airport.
Historically, the Aspen Fire Department has taken the lead command role in the event of a structure fire at the airport, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. However, in the event of a fire on a plane, a plane crash or a fuel farm fire, the airport’s own firefighting staff, which is specially trained in airport rescue and firefighting and knows how to operate special equipment, takes the lead, he said.
Balentine said he reached out to the county in 2017 to update the memo, which had expired. He suggested that Aspen Fire be notified of every fire-related incident at the airport, including a plane crash or fuel farm fire, and take control of all airport resources and staff once Aspen firefighters arrived to fight it, Peacock said.
That was unacceptable to the county, he said. First because Aspen firefighters are not up to date in airport rescue firefighting techniques, and second because Pitkin County is responsible for the airport and answerable to the Federal Aviation Administration — which regulates the airport — for any mishaps, Peacock said.
THE BIG QUESTION: WHO’S IN CONTROL?
So, instead, the county proposed a new command structure known as “unified command” that would take over in the event of an airport emergency, Peacock said.
An airport official and a Sheriff’s Office official would be at the top of the structure to keep an eye on everything happening, while Aspen Fire would take operational command in the event of a structure fire and provide direction to their firefighters, he said.
If the event was a plane crash, an airport firefighting official would take over operational command and those 17 specially trained airport rescue firefighters would lead the suppression efforts, Peacock said. If a shooting occurred at the airport, law enforcement would take over operational command.
In all those scenarios, the Sheriff’s Office and an airport official would retain overall command and decision-making control, he said.
Balentine said he didn’t like that structure and insisted he must be part of the overall command decision-making. In fact, he insisted on that role whether the event was a structure fire, a plane crash or any other fire-related emergency at the airport, according to Peacock, Kinney and DiSalvo.
Because of the command dispute, Balentine has refused to approve the memo and it remains unsigned, though all other public safety agencies in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley have accepted the command structure, they said.
Balentine told The Times he’s not asking for a lead role if a plane crash occurs.
“The airport is in charge of a plane crash,” he said. “There’s not much question about that.”
However, he said Aspen Fire must be part of the overall command structure in the event of a structure fire because he and his leadership team need to be in charge of directing their firefighters.
“It ain’t about control, it’s about safety,” Balentine said. “If we’re putting my folks in harm’s way, it’s only reasonable to know that the people in charge of it know what they’re doing.”
Furthermore, because the Aspen airport lies within the Aspen Fire District, structure fires there are his responsibility based on jurisdiction and an Airport Emergency Plan approved by the county and the FAA in 2015, Balentine said.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” he said. “If there’s a structure fire, Aspen Fire needs to be part of the incident command structure. Ultimately, in our district, we’re in charge of structure fires.”
Peacock said something’s getting lost in translation.
For example, if the airport was still open during a fire, unified commanders might be keeping an eye on incoming or outgoing air traffic or what to do with passengers and how those things might relate to firefighting operations, Peacock said. Such oversight is designed to stop fire engines from screaming down a runway as a passenger jet comes in for a landing, Kinney said.
The person in charge of firefighters isn’t likely to have the time to soak in all those other details and would need to focus on the task of putting the fire out, Peacock said.
“The unified command is not there to tell operations what to do on the tactical side,” he said. “They’re there to support the operations folks. Unified command is keeping an eye on everything else going on at the airport and managing the incident from a safety perspective.”
Both sides charge that the other hasn’t been willing to sit down over the years and talk through the issues.
MOVING FORWARD WITHOUT ASPEN FIRE
Regardless of who is at fault, the county is moving on without Aspen Fire for the time being, Peacock said.
Officials are circulating the MOU agreement among the agencies that have already signed it, with Roaring Fork Fire now proposed as the lead firefighting agency in the event of a structure fire at the airport, he said. The elected boards for each agency must each separately approve it.
Thompson confirmed the agreement will be presented to his board in the near future.
“Roaring Fork Fire would be the agency to respond if the (airport) terminal catches fire” under the current agreement, he said.
Negotiations are on-going with Aspen Fire’s attorney, and if an agreement can be determined, the agency could be added later to the airport MOU, said Ely, Pitkin County’s attorney.
But if the impasse cannot be rectified, the Airport Emergency Plan from 2015 can simply be amended administratively “with the stroke of a pen” to include Roaring Fork Fire as the first responder for an airport structure fire instead of Aspen Fire, Kinney said. The FAA routinely accepts such revisions, he said.
The issue is set to come to a head Oct. 8, when the Aspen Fire Department Board and the Pitkin County board of commissioners are scheduled to discuss it at the commissioners’ regular weekly work session.
CAN’T WE ALL GET ALONG?
Aspen Fire Board Chairman Karl Adam and board member Stoney Davis, the recipient of DiSalvo’s letter two weeks ago, were out of town last week and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Board member Denis Murray said Thursday he wasn’t given a copy of DiSalvo’s Sept. 13 letter about Balentine, and that the board generally doesn’t get into the day-to-day operations of the department and its chief.
However, board members have recently pushed the airport MOU issue to the forefront after years of being told the county put off the issue, wouldn’t meet about it and wouldn’t share the appropriate data involved, Murray said. The board has never reviewed even a draft of the proposed MOU, so he said he couldn’t speak to the specifics of it.
Still, the reports of rancor between Balentine and some members of the public safety community raises red flags, Murray said.
“It concerns me,” he said. “We as a district in the public safety realm need to collaborate with all other public safety departments. We have to work together.”
That is the point raised by DiSalvo, Thompson, Kinney, Peacock and Muething. All took pains to point out that the Roaring Fork Valley’s public safety community gets along better than most similar agencies that share boundaries and missions in other locations.
The cooperation was, for all, a point of pride.
“Pitkin County and the rest of the valley have an unbelievable reputation of cooperation amongst public safety agencies,” DiSalvo said. “We do not have lines or walls.”
Muething, the ambulance district director, agreed.
“Here we all get along so very well,” he said. “(Balentine) is the one outlier at times. I’d love to see Rick coordinate and collaborate with us more and use our system.”
For Thompson, the problems at Aspen Fire have nothing to do with the competency of the department’s volunteer firefighters.
“To me it’s leadership … and this non-cooperation with other agencies,” he said. “It’s horrible this is playing out in the press but the Aspen Fire Board really doesn’t know all that’s has gone on and I think they’ve gotten some bad information.”
Murray said it is Balentine’s job to manage the district.
“Rick looks out for us to the best of his ability,” he said.
In the end, Balentine characterized the dispute as a mountain out of a molehill.
“I think this just got to be blown out of proportion,” he said. “I know everyone got their panties in a wad on this. I’m hoping we’re getting close to getting this resolved.”
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Roaring Fork Schools volunteers who have already completed a comparable background check through an approved entity would be good to go.