For the first time in eight years a new rookie class is making its way through the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, and if everything goes according to plan the department will have five new members by the end of the summer. This group of probationary firefighters, or “probies” as they are called, will help breathe new life into the oldest continuing volunteer fire service in Colorado.
The youngest member of this year’s class and in recent memory is 19-year-old Aspen native Chris Chi, while the oldest is 44-year-old Jason Lasser. The five probies represent a cross-section of the Aspen community and have jobs at all ends of the spectrum. Chris Sulek is a manager at Alpine Bank; Grant Jahnke is a Pitkin County deputy sheriff; Lasser works as an architect and planner; Chi cooks and teaches skiing; and Patrick Mullins is a reservations specialist at The Gant.
Everyone has their own personal reasons for joining the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department (AVFD), but the goal of giving something back to the community is a common thread that binds the probies.
“It seemed like a good way to be a part of the community and meet a lot of great people who have dedicated their time,” said Mullins, whose father was also a volunteer firefighter.
The all-volunteer department has a rich tradition that dates back to 1881 and today covers 87 square miles, or 55,680 acres, in the upper valley, home to nearly $20 billion in property value. Currently there are 35 members in good standing in the department who boast an average age of 47. The target number for the department is 45 members. This is based on national statistics that show six to seven volunteers out of 45 typically respond to an all-call fire alarm, according to AVFD Captain Bruce Bradshaw.
As members of the department continue to age and retire there has been a growing need to replenish the ranks, but this process has become more difficult of late as the high cost of living in Aspen has pushed more and more potential volunteer firefighters to live downvalley. Bradshaw is the chair of the membership and recruiting committee for the department, and he freely admits they waited too long for a new class of probies.
Training a new firefighter is a huge investment, so the department has specific criteria volunteers must meet in order to join. First and foremost the volunteer must live in the Aspen Fire Protection District and have been a resident there for a minimum of two years. Many fire calls occur in the evening and at night and it is imperative that volunteers are close by in order to respond quickly. The department doesn’t discriminate based on age or gender, but the reality of being a firefighter means the individual needs to be physically fit. Finally, members are asked to commit to the department for at least five years, ideally 10. The transient nature of Aspenites begins to quickly winnow down the list of potential recruits, and the criteria historically result in new recruits being over the age of 30.
After the department announced last fall it would be accepting applications for new volunteers, 36 applications were picked up. Of those, 16 completed applications were returned and 12 individuals were interviewed by Bradshaw and his committee. Nine offers to join were made, but two individuals declined based on the time commitment. Subsequently another individual dropped out due to the amount of time involved, followed by another individual who became injured during the ski season, which left the five current probies. Bradshaw was a member of the last rookie class and said these numbers are consistent with his class which started with nine recruits and ended with six.
Almost to a man — all the current probies are men — time commitment is cited as the hardest part of training to become a volunteer firefighter. Since the middle of January the probies have been attending class every Monday and Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. plus hands-on training every Thursday during the same three hour period. This is in addition to several Saturday trainings and studying at home. One current firefighter compared the training to taking anywhere from two to three college-level night classes. Assuming everyone passes their written and practical tests, this level of high-intensity training will slightly decrease by mid-summer, although the time commitment will not.
Once the recruits become members of the department, they have a long list of minimum requirements to meet in order to maintain good standing. This list includes responding to 25 percent of the emergency all-calls for service; attending at least three monthly business meetings each year; completing 36 hours of department training drills each year and responding to “on-call officer calls.”
The AVFD is 100 percent volunteer, however its firefighters are just as qualified as those who are paid. Every Aspen volunteer firefighter is certified at a minimum as a Firefighter I by the state.
“The state, feds and citizens don’t care if you are a volunteer or a career firefighter — everyone has to go through the same training,” said training officer Blair Elliot, who has trained every current member of the department. After 24 years with Aspen fire, Elliot retired last year but is now paid to teach the classroom portion of the training. To further emphasize his point, Elliot said that Aspen volunteer firefighters have the same level of training as those in Denver, Los Angeles and Detroit.
Elliot manages to keep the probies on their toes and engaged during the long nights while covering tedious information. According to probie Sulek, Elliot tells stories of the old days when firefighters acted like cowboys and didn’t concern themselves with things like safety and proper procedure, emphasizing that such actions aren’t acceptable under today’s strict standards.
Underneath his tough exterior, Elliot has a soft spot for the probies. “They’re all very motivated individuals, and I’m very proud of them,” he said.
To achieve the Firefighter I certificate probies must complete both written and practical tests in each of three areas: firefighting, hazardous materials and first responder. Firefighting includes such basics as fire science, behavior, chemistry, safety and personal protective equipment. The probationary class recently took their written exam with a 100 percent pass rate, and their practical test at a live fire training facility in Rifle is scheduled for later this month.
Elliot is now in the process of teaching them the hazardous materials course, or in his words, “jamming it down their throats.” The hazmat component is a relatively new requirement of Firefighter I and is dreaded by the probies, especially because the written test has a first time failure rate of more than 50 percent. When designing this year’s curriculum Bradshaw built in an extra month of training focused on hazmat specifically to increase everyone’s chances of success.
In addition to the five AVFD probies, Elliot also has five rookies from Basalt and one from Carbondale. The downvalley districts have joined up with Aspen to take advantage of the classroom training, which also provides a good opportunity for the new firefighters to get to know one another since the departments provide mutual aid when needed.
However, when it comes to practical training the probies work within their own departments to learn their specific equipment and standard operating procedures. Bradshaw and AVFD training officer Michael Lawler, a veteran of the San Francisco and Telluride fire departments, are heading up the hands-on development of the rookies. Toward the end of March and the beginning of April, the Aspen probies were able to take advantage of the impending demolition of the Gap building. The department made arrangements with the contractors to allow for training both outside and inside the empty building which provided opportunities such as filling the interior with fake smoke to simulate a real fire environment. The probies also practiced window breaking and other tactics that allowed them to tear holes in the walls.
According to Elliot, since there is no training facility in the Roaring Fork Valley, AVFD relies on the generosity of property owners for opportunities such as live burns. One of those local property owners is retired AVFD veteran Jay Parker, who operates the Smuggler Mine. Earlier this month the probies spent an evening crawling through the mine in full fire gear and practiced a rescue in a confined space. Just when they thought they were finished for the night, they returned to the mine to extinguish a large bonfire that Parker had built for them.
No matter how much time is spent learning in the classroom and in preparation for the practical tests, Bradshaw said the true training doesn’t really begin until after the rookies have been voted into the department as full-fledged members. The department has weekly training sessions for members and all the firefighters must meet a minimum level of continuing education to keep their certification current.
“Soon it will all be over and we can learn how the Aspen firefighters really do it,” said probie Sulek.
The department recognizes the challenges of maintaining a volunteer organization, and has several incentives in place to help keep members on board. Some of the firefighters in the AVFD downplay the benefits, but nevertheless they play an important role in member retention.
“Maintaining a good recruitment retainment policy is hugely important for a volunteer department,” said AVFD chief Rick Balentine.
One of the policies that Balentine helped to implement is health insurance for all members, the first of its kind in the state for a volunteer department. Balentine believes this benefit makes the members feel appreciated and helps to maintain a high level of camaraderie. And although none of the members are paid, there is a nominal retirement fund for those over the age of 50 that have given 10 years of service to the department.
“The main thing is that we help the community, that’s the bottom line. We don’t do this because of any type of benefit,” said Bradshaw.
A day may come when the department has to consider making changes to its all-volunteer structure, but Balentine doesn’t see that happening in the near future.
“I personally don’t see much of any difference between the commitment of a paid firefighter and a volunteer firefighter. I think people do it because they want to do it and because they love to do it,” he said.
In the meantime, the AVFD is already planning its next round of recruiting for the fall with the goal of having another probie class in the winter of 2014.