Our View: Fire staffing takes priority

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Steamboat Springs fire officials are concerned that the city doesn't have enough firefighters to handle a major structure fire. It's a serious issue that the city must act quickly to fix.

The Steamboat Springs Fire Department employs 12 full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians, four part-time firefighters/EMTs, five volunteers and four reserve members. That's 25 firefighters, less than half of the department's peak staffing of 55, said Fire Chief Bob Struble said.

There are no standard guidelines for towns in terms of firefighters per capita, but one would assume that Steamboat, the largest town in Northwest Colorado, would have the largest firefighting staff in the region. Sadly, that's not the case.

For example, Craig has 28 part-time firefighters for a town that is similar in population to Steamboat but has fewer than half the buildings. Craig has a separate EMT staff. The West Routt Fire Protection District, based in Hayden, has one full-time fire chief, 16 volunteer firefighters and 17 volunteer EMTs to cover an area with less than one fifth the population of the area the Steamboat department covers.

Steamboat's manpower shortage means that Steamboat frequently has to ask area fire departments for assistance when multiple calls come in. West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman said his department has helped Steamboat more times in the past three months than at any time during his 32 years with West Routt.

Whenever Rickman's personnel are helping Steamboat, fire coverage in West Routt is compromised.

Part of the problem for Steamboat Springs is a recent decision to stop paying volunteer firefighters $20 each time they respond to a call. Steamboat officials became concerned that the payments could run afoul of the IRS's definition of "volunteer." Such a determination could affect local volunteers' eligibility for a volunteer firefighters pension, Struble said.

Craig's firefighters are paid by the hour each time they respond, and West Routt firefighters are paid $40 each time they respond. Fire chiefs in both districts said they are researching IRS policies in the wake of Steamboat's decision, but that they believe their departments operate within the guidelines.

The volunteer pay change in Steamboat has caused the department to lose some volunteers. But it alone can't account for the lack of staffing. J.D. Hays, the city's director of public safety, thinks 12 full-time firefighters simply isn't enough. And others have said they can't commit to part-time status because they have full-time work doing other jobs.

Struble fears Steamboat doesn't have the manpower to handle a large structure fire such as a condominium complex. It shouldn't come to that.

If it hasn't already, the city needs to undertake an analysis of its staffing needs and fund more full-time personnel if necessary. If the city can't pay stipends, it should consider other incentives for volunteers.

Perhaps the city should look to Hayden and Craig to understand how those communities have had more success recruiting and retaining volunteers.

Adequate fire protection is an essential service that residents rightfully expect the city to provide. Understaffing is a problem that the city should be working to fix just as soon as possible.

Anything less is playing with fire.

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