Help wanted

Changes leave Steamboat fire department short on manpower

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— Former Steamboat Springs volunteer firefighter Bobby Carlomagno is worried about the state of the fire department.

He is concerned there aren't enough firefighters and emergency medical service employees to respond to calls. He is concerned that Steamboat has come to rely on West Routt and other parts of the county to help respond to major structure fires and multiple calls.

After fellow volunteer firefighter Simon O'Farrell left the department several months ago, Carlomagno decided to speak publicly about issues he said most people are not aware of.

Fire Chief Bob Struble and Public Safety Director J.D. Hays said they are aware of Carlomagno's concerns. They also said they are looking into finding solutions to some of the problems but that such change isn't always possible because employee turnover is high and Steamboat's population continues to grow.

"One thing we're seeing now -- and it used to be a rarity -- is that we're running three calls at the same time," Struble said. "When those situations arise, we do have some staffing problems."

The fire department employs 12 full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians, four part-time firefighters/EMTs, five volunteers and four reserve members. That total is less than half of the department's peak staffing of 55 firefighters, Struble said.

EMS Battalion Chief Mel Stewart said there are four full-time staff members on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they go out on a call -- whether it is a fire, report of smoke, or a medical call in which an ambulance is necessary -- those four people are tied up.

If another call comes in, it may be difficult for part-time staff, volunteers or reserve staff to respond based on the time of day and how far away the volunteers or reserve members are from the fire station.

"When you rely solely on people showing up, you have to go with what shows up. It's always been that way," Struble said.

Calling for help

If the department doesn't have enough men to get a fire truck or an ambulance out the door, the department pages for mutual aid -- usually from the West Routt Fire Protection District -- for assistance.

"When we get into those situations, (the firefighters) have decisions to make. How are they going to handle it? Are they going to split the crew up? We do what we can, the best we can, with the resources we have," Stewart said.

To Carlomagno, that is unacceptable.

"(West Routt) is pretty much written in as station No. 3. I don't know about you, but I'd be pretty (mad) if my mom was a having a heart attack and the truck was coming from 35 minutes away," he said. "Someone is going to pay the ultimate price of all this -- either it will be a firefighter or a person who loses his life."

Struble said he knows the situation is not ideal, especially because pulling manpower out of South, North or West Routt leaves those districts unattended. "It seems like for any structure fire we get, we're calling for mutual aid," Struble said. "When we pull from Hayden, it affects the airport. It's a domino effect for the entire county."

Stress on West Routt

West Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bryan Rickman said his department has been called to assist Steamboat more times during the past three months than in the rest of his 32 years with West Routt.

"When they call, or they're understaffed, we do what we can to assist them," Rickman said. "My concern now is how much longer we can continue to do that with our staffing as low as it is."

Rickman said his department staffs 38 employees, seven employees short of being fully staffed.

"We still worry about providing coverage in our own district. We don't take it lightly," he said. "I think the writing is on the wall. (Steamboat) is going to have to hire more people. Until that happens, we'll continue to help them for as long as it is humanly possible."

West Routt was called to assist with a fire in February at Eagle Ridge condominiums. That fire was an example of the problems created by a lack of manpower.

"At a minimum, we should have had eight guys there," Stewart said. "We had six."

The concern, officials agreed, is Steamboat's ability to respond to a major structural fire given its current staffing.

"Right now, we don't have the personnel to handle a large fire," Struble said. "We don't have the luxury larger fire departments have like in the Denver Metro area, where you can get everyone to respond to a page. This isn't just happening in Steamboat, this happens in all small communities."

Hays said the fire department is going through "growing pains" and that the city is well-aware of the issue.

"Twelve (full-time) firefighters is not enough. We're not going to be able to solve this tomorrow. But we will be able to down the road," Hays said. "Are we going to look at all of this? Absolutely. Are we? Yes. Can we do a better job? Sure. It's not an overnight fix, but I'm committed to fixing it," Hays said.

Pay changes

Struble and Hays agreed that recruiting and retaining firefighters -- especially volunteers -- is not easy.

The fire department recently restructured how it pays its volunteers. Previously, volunteers got $20 for responding to a call; now, they get nothing.

Paying volunteer firefighters conflicted with the volunteers' eligibility for pension programs. Struble said paying volunteers per call conflicted with IRS and Fair Labor Association policies.

Struble said the changes happened very quickly and that not all the volunteer firefighters were pleased with the changes.

"There was some grumbling. People don't like change, they like things the old way. Making the changes was the only option," Struble said.

The volunteers were given the option to become reserve members who would be paid minimum wage. However, moving to part-time status was not a good option for some with full-time jobs, such as O'Farrell.

"We were forced into giving them a choice of volunteer pension or moving into the employee realm," Struble said. "It was basically, do you want to be a volunteer or do you get paid? You couldn't double-dip," Stewart said.

Stewart said there was no way around the issue because the IRS wanted to see W-2 forms for employees to qualify for pension plans, not the 1099 form that previously was issued.

When a person is paid on the 1099 form, the individual is responsible for filing and paying for state, local and federal taxes because the government dos not withhold any money as it does when employees are paid on W-2s.

Hays said the changes were unavoidable but that the situation could have been handled differently.

"We could have done a better job selling it or letting (the volunteer firefighters) know it was coming. It came real quick. We could have done a better job explaining why it happened as quick as it did," he said.

Recruiting issues

Hays said that the city may have a hard time recruiting new firefighters or attracting firefighters who already have left because of the pay changes, especially because firefighters still are required to participate in routine trainings and shift requirements.

"We can always look at ways to re-attract people, but I think there are some not interested in coming back because of the changes made. Others want to come back because they love the job, they love helping people; they'd do it for free if they could, but they have to live in Steamboat, too," Hays said.

Struble said he also is committed to bringing more people to the department and training new reserve member classes.

"We've got seven (reserve members) left in the recruit class. We have 13 applications for a new class we are starting in April. Hopefully, more will come in. We'll ask for more staff in the budget -- we're looking at creative ways to bring staff in," Struble said.

Finding solutions

Interim City Manager Wendy DuBord said she has been involved in three meetings recently with Struble, as well as the department's shift supervisors and EMS employees to brainstorm solutions to some of the problems the department is facing.

"We're looking at short-term ways to solve some of the problems and will continue to look at increasing (the fire department's budget)," she said.

DuBord said the department's 2006 budget is about $1.9 million. She said she has not received a proposal from Struble requesting additional funds to hire more full-time firefighters/EMTs but that she is expecting one soon.

"I recognize the town is growing. I recognize the amount of calls (the fire department) is getting is growing. I'll be anxious to see what (Struble's) final proposal looks like. We'd like to see the proposal not just for staff increases but for future programming and programs," she said.

In the meantime, Hays said, it is important for people to understand the fire department is like other agencies in town -- it's struggling to keep up with a rapidly growing population and territory.

"We've got a great group of people who do a great job here with not enough resources," he said. "We're trying to get them what they need."

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