Volunteer use an issue in fire department staffing | PostIndependent.com

Volunteer use an issue in fire department staffing

Post Independent/Kelley Cox

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about a staffing shortage in the Glenwood Springs Fire Department.When Mike Morgan joined the Rifle Fire Department 20 years ago, most of the department consisted of volunteers who were local business owners, he said.”When there was a call they’d flip the ‘closed’ sign and off they’d go,” Morgan recalls. Much has changed in the department since then. Morgan, who joined as a volunteer, is fire chief. And today, it’s harder for business owners to shut the doors and respond to a fire, when competitors such as Wal-Mart are remaining open. In addition, with a growing number of Rifle residents commuting elsewhere to work or holding down multiple jobs, it is harder for them to volunteer.As a result, Rifle has been expanding its number of paid staff. Buoyed by a booming tax based thanks in large part to soaring natural gas development – also a source of an increasing number of its calls – the department recently added seven staff members, bringing its total paid personnel to 18.That’s the same as in Glenwood. But the Rifle department still also relies on a strong stable of some 40 volunteers – far more than Glenwood, which is facing the threat of a sharp downgrade in its insurance rating due to a staffing shortfall.The Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District also makes more use of volunteers than Glenwood, although it also has added paid staff in part because it faces some of the same challenges involving volunteers that Glenwood does.Carbondale has 60 volunteers and 15 paid staff. Chief Ron Leach said the department was all-volunteer when he became chief in 1980.

“It’s harder and harder to maintain a good volunteer force, no doubt about it,” he said.Nevertheless, volunteers remain integral to Carbondale’s firefighting force, and Leach is proud of them.”We could not do what we do without our volunteers. It would be just too expensive for the taxpayers,” Leach said.Technically, Glenwood has only two volunteers, but that’s a little misleading. It also has eight reserve firefighters who are part-time, although they are paid only minimum wage. The city pays them so it legally can dictate things such as the hours they work.Still, Glenwood’s combination of volunteers and part-timers totals fewer in number than the number of volunteers in other area departments.”For better or worse we don’t have a working group of volunteers,” said city manager Jeff Hecksel.He expects the issue of volunteers to be discussed when city and Glenwood Springs Fire Protection District officials get together at the district board meeting next week. It is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the downtown fire station and is open to the public.Shifting to more paid staff has dealt with some of the challenges associated with volunteers, at a time when training demands are increasing and departments are becoming busier with calls. But a paid staff presents its own challenges, such as the need to maintain adequate staffing when people are away on vacation, sick or personal leave, or for training. There also is the difficulty of coming up with enough funding to pay firefighters.Glenwood’s fire department receives about a quarter of its revenue from the district, which is funded by property taxes paid by those outside city limits. The city relies on sales taxes to pay its share of department costs. But the city’s sales tax income softened after 9/11, the national recession and the Coal Seam Fire of 2002, which destroyed some 29 homes in the area and dealt a blow to tourism.

Those revenues began to rebound last year, especially after the opening in the fall of the Glenwood Meadows commercial complex. However, the fire department also expects to be busier than ever now that Glenwood Meadows is open, as do other city agencies such as the police department.Fire chief Mike Piper last year asked for authorization to hire nine more paid staff. But city officials denied the request at a time of a continuing tight budget.Jim Mason, who served as the last Glenwood fire chief before stepping down in the late 1990s, said he favored increasing the department’s paid staff. But he believes volunteerism isn’t dead locally, and a combination paid/volunteer force still would serve Glenwood best, given its present circumstances and needs.”The reality of it is, can you get the manpower to the fire? And if you can’t, maybe you need to look at a different way,” he said.He said he found it best to run the department with mostly paid staff during the days, and then rely on volunteers more during other times when they were more available.The Insurance Services Office, or ISO, has threatened to downgrade Glenwood from a 4 to a 10 ISO rating because it isn’t averaging at least four firefighters in initial responses to fires. Mason said ISO improved Glenwood’s rating to a 5 in the 1990s when the department was mostly volunteer, and then upgraded it again in the early 1990s to a 4, which at the time was the lowest on the Western Slope.”It was a big deal. It certainly saved the residents of the community a lot in insurance premiums,” he said.Leach said that despite the challenges of finding volunteers these days, Carbondale is lucky to have a waiting list to volunteer.

“I feel like we’re staffed just about right now,” he said.Morgan said he expects volunteers to remain the backbone of Rifle’s fire department, even with its growth in paid staff.”It’s a matter of having the resources available to provide the level of services demanded and expected. It’s kind of a balancing act that everybody has to do,” he said.Harlan Porter, president of the Glenwood Springs fire district board, said he couldn’t say for sure why the Glenwood department shifted away from a time when it was all-volunteer, but he speculated as to why.”As the city grew, people got busy. They can’t respond. They can’t devote the time that’s really required,” he said.But Porter added that he’s sure volunteer firefighters would love to debate him on that point.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com

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