New fire chief looks to future of volunteerism

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

As Rick Balentine settles into his new position of Aspen fire chief, he is looking to the future of the volunteer department and focusing on how to recruit more young firefighters.

The all-volunteer fire department is aging, with some firefighters having been there for 30 years or more. Balentine, a 24-year veteran of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department who was elected chief on Jan. 9, said he expects a few firefighters to retire this year.

“If that trend continues, it’s going to put more of a strain on the department,” he said. “Our department is aging rapidly. … We are losing firefighters through attrition.”

For the first time in six years, the AVFD has signed on a new class of recruits — five “probies,” a term used to refer to rookie firefighters — who are currently going through a six-month probation and training period.

The youngest of the recruits is 18 years old, and the rest are in their 20s and 30s. Right now, they respond to non-emergency calls while they get their state certifications.

There are 36 active volunteers in the AVFD; Balentine’s hope is to get that number up to 50 in the next few years.

“Our goal is to boost our numbers,” he said, adding that he hopes to get another class of recruits certified next year.

Besides focusing on his firefighters’ safety through beefed-up training, Balentine said recruitment and retention is key to the success of the volunteer department. Offering benefits is a big part of that.

“We are one of the only volunteer fire departments that offers health insurance” in the state and country, he said.

The AVFD had 12 people interested in becoming firefighters with the latest round of new recruits, but seven didn’t make the cut for various reasons.

Balentine said he doesn’t see a threat to the volunteer model in the future, because the community and the Aspen Fire Protection District, which operates and funds the volunteer fire department through property tax revenue, is committed to volunteerism.

“We are very fortunate to have volunteers to continue the tradition for 100-plus years,” he said. “The board really supports this model.”

And while the department is facing a wave of retirement in the future, calls for service continue to go up.

The AVFD responded to 751 calls in 2012, a 23 increase over 2011, according to Balentine. And in 2011, the AVFD responded to 615 calls, which was a 13 percent increase over 2010. This is approximately a 36 percent increase in responses just since 2010.

The spike in responses is due to carbon monoxide calls.

“It’s more than you’d think,” Balentine said of carbon monoxide being present in people’s homes. “There is a large amount of calls where carbon monoxide is present.”

In 2010, AVFD responded to 132 carbon monoxide calls, with 17 of those actually having the odorless, poisonous gas present. In 2011, there were 115 carbon monoxide calls; 19 of those had the gas present. This past year, the AVFD experienced a sharp increase in calls involving carbon monoxide — 148 responses, with 32 of those having it present.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Aspen Volunteer Fire Department officers from left to right: Rick Balentine, fire chief; Parker Lathrop, captain; Brandon Potter, EMS officer; Dave Walbert, deputy fire chief; Chris Hopkins, safety officer; Jan Schubert, secretary and treasurer; Bruce Bradshaw, captain; Craig Melville, captain; Mike Tracey, captain; and Roy Holloway, chaplain. Captains not pictured are Ken Josselyn and Kevin Smiddy. President Marc Zachery and vice president Mike Haisfield also are not pictured.

Still, there are plenty of false alarms that volunteers must respond to, and they are happy to do it, in the name of prevention and public awareness.

“[Carbon monoxide] calls have added a huge workload for our volunteers,” Balentine said.

Ed Van Walraven, fire marshal for the Aspen Fire Protection District — the operating arm of the volunteer department — said the industry is working on making better alarms and devices to reduce the number of false alarms.

He said his goal is to make the public aware of the threat of carbon monoxide, and how to check their alarms to make sure they are functioning properly.

In 2012, rescue calls within the AVFD accounted for approximately 25 percent of its workload. These include motor vehicle accidents, swift-water rescue and confined space rescues.

Last year also saw a sharp increase in emergency medical service calls with a total of 63 mutual-aid assists to Aspen Ambulance. This is up from only 15 calls in 2011 and is partly due to a change in what types of calls AVFD EMS responded to in 2012.

The AVFD serves as a back up — as does the Snowmass Wildcat Fire Department — when Aspen Ambulance crews already are committed to other calls. The AVFD has mutual aid agreements with all the other fire departments and emergency response providers in the valley.

“Our valley is very fortunate to have such great working relationships that support each other in time of need,” Balentine said. “We also cross train with other agencies quite often so we are familiar with each other when needed.”

Last year, volunteers logged a total of 2,065 training hours, covering everything from swift water, high angle and ice rescues to extrication, hazmat, fire fighting and EMS.

Balentine and other AVFD officials are concerned about drought this year, which could end up being worse than 2012. They are meeting next month regarding wildfire preparedness. Typically, that meeting occurs in April.

Even though last year was dry as a bone in the valley and surrounding area, AVFD crews were able to get a handle quickly on any wildfire that ignited.

“We were very lucky based on how dry it was,” Balentine said. “Hopefully this year will be the same ... but it could be worse.”

Balentine said the public was “amazing” last year in being diligent about following fire bans and taking precautionary measures for anticipated wildfires.

“We want that kind of diligence from the public this year,” he said.

Van Walraven said every decision made in the fire protection district office is about the safety of the firefighters and the public.

“Fire prevention is the initial attack against fires,” he said. “We will take the blame for the lack of fires.”

That means a lot of training within the AVFD and the district, as well as educating the public on how to maintain their property to ward off wildfires, and keep their fire alarms and sprinklers functioning.

And for the most part, all of that is happening, which is why there aren’t a lot of fires in the 72-mile boundary of the fire department.

“The success of our fire prevention is the public,” Van Walraven said. “Thank you for listening to the message.”