City to reconsider volunteers as fire staffing source
Post Independent Staff
Rethinking a diminishing use of volunteers by the Glenwood Springs Fire Department is among a range of options to be considered in hopes of fending off a downgrading in the department’s insurance rating.
City officials and members of the Glenwood Springs Fire Protection District board plan to further explore the use of volunteers and also look more closely at other alternatives that include spending a half-million dollars on nine full-time staff and bringing the city into a special district funded by property tax rather than sales tax revenues.
City and board representatives discussed their options and the threatened downgrading at a joint meeting Monday. The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, a nationwide agency that rates fire departments to help insurers set premiums, has threatened to reduce the Glenwood department’s rating to a 10, the worst possible. ISO says the department is unable to consistently and immediately respond with at least four people to structure fires.
The city’s rating is now a 4. The rating reduction could result in a doubling of premiums for residents served by the department.
The department also has had to close its station up Four Mile Road most days because of a lack of staffing.
Mayor Bruce Christensen said city officials need to determine why more people aren’t available for initial responses to fires, and more important whether the department is providing adequate safety to the community.
“The answer seems to be no,” he said.
Christensen pressed fire chief Mike Piper for answers about why Glenwood makes less use of volunteers than other departments. Piper spoke of the difficulty in finding volunteers.
“Where are they?” Piper asked.
“We don’t have them. That’s our question. Where are they?” Christensen responded.
Piper warned against taking the volunteer levels of other area departments at face value. He said probably 30 of the 60 volunteers in Carbondale’s department are active.
But Glenwood resident Rusty Ford, a former volunteer firefighter, said Carbondale firefighters are helping put out Glenwood fires because of Glenwood’s reluctance to use volunteers.
“I think we deserve better than we’re getting right now,” he said.
Piper noted that Glenwood has eight reserve firefighters who are paid as part-timers due to legal requirements.
“We have not abandoned volunteer services. We’re just paying them what they’re supposed to be getting,” he said.
Harlan Porter, president of the fire board, estimated that the department would need 27 volunteers signing up for shift work, or twice that if they aren’t required to do shift work, to bring staffing up enough to meet ISO requirements. He said it would be “interesting” to see if 27 volunteers could be found.
Piper said one challenge is getting volunteer candidates to clear background checks. But Christensen questioned how many candidates that would disqualify.
Another concern for Piper is the level of firefighting and emergency medical technician training that is required. Christensen and others Monday wondered whether the city could make more use of people with varying levels of training. Paid, trained staff could respond to the EMT emergencies that make up most of the department’s calls, and people trained just in firefighting could respond to fire calls where more help is needed.
Another idea considered Monday was getting the fire department out of the EMT business to reduce the training firefighters need, and contracting with a private ambulance service.
City Council member Joe O’Donnell opposes that concept.
“I’ve had experience with private ambulances around the country, and it can be a disaster,” he said.
Porter suggested bringing the city into a special district to provide a more stable funding source. The city funds more than three-quarters of the fire department’s $2 million budget through a sales tax. Residents in the fire district surrounding the city pay a property tax to fund the remaining portion of the budget.
But Porter and others agreed chances are slim of convincing city voters to charge themselves a property tax.
Tim Thulson, a Glenwood Springs attorney, said he thinks it would be a particularly hard sell if voters think the department could make better use of a volunteer force.
“I think it’s been underutilized,” he said.
Mark Gould, who lives in Westbank south of Glenwood, said the city should both add the nine paid staff and figure out the volunteer situation. “Fix it,” he urged city and board officials, referring to the staffing shortfall.
He said Westbank residents will have a hard time understanding why they’re paying off a bond issue for a Four Mile station that’s always closed.
“It’s time we make sure we have a world-class place to live. We need a world-class place to be safe,” he said.
City Council member Kris Chadwick said she thinks the city should hire the nine staff “and figure out how to pay for it.”
The city would bear $400,000 of the cost of the new hires. The city has turned down Piper’s request for the new hires for several years and has been struggling with a tight citywide budget.
Piper said that even adding the nine staff wouldn’t guarantee four would be available for every call.
City Council and the fire board are tentatively scheduled to further discuss the issue at a work session May 2. The city has until June 2 to submit a staffing plan to ISO in hopes of heading off the downgrade in rating.
Meanwhile, the city is taking applications for reserve firefighters. Written, physical and oral testing will take place next week. More information is available from city resource director Sebrina Hoffmeister, 384-6400.
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