City officials plan to look for the cheapest answers first as they try to deal with a staffing shortfall in the Glenwood Springs Fire Department.City Council members agreed Thursday to explore options such as more use of volunteers, changes to the department’s response protocol to emergency calls, pursuit of grants to help fund more staff, and trying to enlist employees of other city departments to help fight fires.It identified those options at a work session Thursday, also attended by board members of the Glenwood Springs Rural Fire Protection District and several Glenwood firefighters.The meeting was precipitated by a threat by the Insurance Services Office to downgrade the city’s fire rating from a 4 to a 10, the worst rating. The action could result in big hikes in some insurance premiums for property owners.A chief concern for ISO has been the city’s inability to always be able respond to structure fires with a minimum of four firefighters.Fire chief Mike Piper wants to hire nine more paid, full-time firefighters, but in the past city officials have rejected the request, which would cost more than a half-million dollars a year.Some council members Thursday expressed interest in adding at least some full-time staff. However, neither the city nor the rural district currently has the money to commit to more hires.”Until that trend changes, you’re not in a good spot,” city manager Jeff Hecksel told the council and board members Thursday.That’s because they have until only the start of June to submit a plan to ISO for trying to avoid the ratings downgrade, and a year to implement that plan.The current financial limitations caused council member Joe O’Donnell to focus instead Thursday on whether the department could be better deploying existing personnel. He suggested that the department’s fire analyst, who now performs tasks such as reviewing building plans, also be required to do shift work as a firefighter. O’Donnell said it’s also possible that agencies such as Garfield County Search and Rescue could be relied upon more, to reduce the response demands on Glenwood’s department.O’Donnell said he would ask for an outside review of the department’s operations before he could support a half-million-dollar increase in its budget.Mayor Bruce Christensen said he sees worth in considering cross-training willing employees of other city departments to help on fires, even though he knows it could have some impacts on those other departments.As for grants for additional staff, their drawback is that they could commit the city to paying a share of the new staff’s salaries for several years, without knowing what its financial situation might be years from now.A key focus for the city and district will be the long-contentious issue of volunteers. Some council members and some city residents are questioning why Glenwood’s department has almost no volunteers, while other area departments make heavy use of them.”I don’t think it’s fair to say that the city abandoned its volunteer program,” Hecksel said.Rather, he said, the city tried to restructure it based on federal laws. The result has been an expansion of the city’s paid, part-time reserve force in lieu of volunteers.The city still can seek to recruit volunteers, but Hecksel said it’s unclear whether the city legally is able to pay them any kind of stipend, and its ability to do so could affect recruitment.District board members voiced some reservations Thursday about the chances for successfully reviving the department’s volunteer program. Meanwhile, Dave Reinhold, a full-time lieutenant with the department and former volunteer, explained some of the reasons for the loss of department volunteers over the years.One problem came when the fire and emergency medical service agencies merged years ago, and volunteers in each agency didn’t want to do new kinds of work.For Reinhold himself, a growing challenge was responding to fire calls when his employer was relying on him to be on the job.As volunteer numbers started to dwindle, Reinhold said, burnout increased. Meanwhile, the city eventually instituted mandatory shifts to help ensure adequate staffing, but volunteers didn’t want to commit to that.Rick Davis said he was on City Council several years ago when about 13 volunteers “thought they were being railroaded out” by the city. He said insurance issues were a chief problem in relation to volunteers. He predicted it also may be hard to mesh together volunteers and paid staff.”Can they be coharmonious? You’re going to have to figure that out,” he told council and fire board members Thursday.The city already is addressing its staffing shortage in part by hiring more reserve members – a point it can make to ISO in its action plan, Christensen noted.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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