Firefighters in the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District recently filed two grievances with their board, including one against the fire chief alleging he has created “an environment of fear and distrust” that has contributed to an abnormally high rate of employee turnover.
Eleven fire district employees backed the grievances, according to a source within the district, which has between 12 and 16 full-time employees. One grievance is more detailed than the other, but both seek a neutral mediator who can ensure a forum in which employees can speak freely without the “threat of retribution.” The complaints were filed within the past two weeks.
Fire Chief Steve Sowles, however, said Friday that the claims are unfounded and that his firefighters shouldn’t complain given the salaries they earn for working 10 to 15 days a month.
Bill Boineau, the mayor of Snowmass Village, is also president of the fire district’s board. He said the grievances were sent to board members with the message that “the whole fire department was up in arms.” Boineau, who was a longtime firefighter in the village when such jobs were volunteer roles, said he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“I’m hearing there are some who are not” supporting the filing of the complaints, he said, noting that neither grievance contained signatures of those supporting it. “It may be a few people manipulating this. Some guys don’t like the chief’s style, but he’s doing what the board wants.”
The district source, though, said that neither grievance was signed because there “are people who are deathly afraid of retaliation.”
Another fire district employee contacted for this story told of a “really fearful environment.”
“Everyone’s walking around on eggshells,” said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, including being fired. “We’re not asking for anybody’s job, we’re not asking for pay. We want a neutral party to handle communication” between the various levels of staff.
Since April 2011, there has been turnover in seven of the district’s nine full-time firefighter/paramedic conditions, one grievance says.
One underlying issue is that some in the district want to move from the current work schedule to one in which fire personnel would work 48 straight hours, followed by 96 hours off. That change would go far in alleviating the turnover rate, a source said.
“It wouldn’t change any costs, and it’s becoming the standard in fire service,” the source said. “We researched it before asking for it, and the chief and the board just shot us down. They’re unwilling to communicate, and we can’t even have civil conversations. They just get defensive.”
The lengthier of the grievances was apparently backed by eight district employees. They believe “that the fire chief’s unwillingness to take steps to retain employees shows gross fiscal irresponsibility and total disregard for several of the fire department’s core values.”
The source said the 48-96 schedule would be “one single thing” that could lower the turnover rate.
Sowles acknowledged seven district employees leaving since 2011 but said it wasn’t because of the workplace environment. One person was fired; others left because they were going back to college, had gotten married or for other personal reasons, he said.
Sowles, who said he’s been in the fire service industry for nearly 40 years and the village fire chief for about seven, said he was against implementing a 48-96 schedule.
“It works for some organizations,” he said. “But it puts people off [work] on the weekends.”
With such a schedule, Sowles said he would have to “punish” two other people, including a deputy fire chief, by forcing them to work weekends to cover shifts.
Boineau said he agreed: “I said, ‘Guys, I can’t do that. I need you around,’” he said.
The disputes are between staff responding to calls in fire trucks and ambulances, and their captains, Sowles said.
He said he doesn’t favor bringing in a neutral party to mediate between his captains and lower-ranking staff. He believes the grievances are groundless.
Sowles also denied fostering a hostile environment, saying he often walks the fire station floor to talk with firefighters and that he maintains an open-door policy. He said he’ll listen to complaints, but “you may not get what you wish for.”
Adding to the stress is what for outsiders might be considered counterintuitive: the lack of calls for help, Sowles said. Such activity helps break up the monotony, and without the calls boredom can be a struggle and help lead to resentment, he said.
“How many communities of this size have paid fire departments?” Sowles said, pointing out the mostly volunteer fire crews elsewhere in the valley. “Not very many.”
Maybe the benefits and salaries aren’t as good as, say, Denver, which has more revenue streams that allow for better employment packages, but “where we live, the calls we go on, this is a great place to live.”
Sowles also said he would not respond to his staff’s concerns by firing them. “That’s not my character,” he said.
Boineau said he believes the ill will is fostered by type-A personalities. The fire service draws strong-willed people who must be aggressive in responding to medical situations, fires and other situations where the possibility of injury exists daily.
“I did it for 24 years as a volunteer, and it takes some thick skin,” he said. “Everybody’s always pushing people for more. But you can’t dole out everything people want.”
He said he expects the Snowmass-Wildcat board to discuss the anonymous grievances later this month in a closed executive session.
One fire district source, however, said they were not holding their breath.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” the person said.