For a change, Fire Chief Rick Balentine awoke to some good early-morning news. Early Wednesday, Balentine learned the Aspen Protection Fire District had been awarded a $1.3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 100% of which will be used for recruitment and retention of eight volunteer firefighters annually.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant — which comes through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — is retroactive to 2019 and continues through 2023; it will cover health insurance, the firefighters’ length of service award plan and all of their equipment needs, Balentine said.
“This helps us with keeping strong volunteer forces in the future,” he said.
The district credits Jan Schubert, who is in charge of the accounting and payroll, in landing the grant. Schubert said it will be used by “about eight firefighters every year for the next four years.”
The added personnel will help maintain 24-hour service coverage.
“It will include all of their benefits, all their bunker gear. All of that is a huge expense. That’s almost a million dollars worth of health insurance,” Schubert said.
The district has 11 paid firefighter positions In total, including Balentine and Deputy Chief Parker Lathrop. The volunteer pool runs 34 persons deep; 10 new members were sworn in recently. Each year, the district averages about 1,800 calls for service.
“Paid people can’t do it alone,” said Schubert.
But the volunteer base is aging, with the average age of an Aspen firefighter “around 45,” she said. “It’s a hard sell to get new and young volunteers. Health insurance as a benefit will help in our recruitment.”
According to a letter from Christopher Logan, acting assistant administrator for grant programs: “The purpose of the SAFER Grant Program is to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to assist in increasing the number of firefighters to help communities meet industry minimum standards and attain 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards, and to fulfill traditional missions of fire departments.”
Appropriately, the letter from FEMA to the fire district was dated 9/11.
“We’ve had volunteers in place here since 1881,” Balentine said. “This will ensure it stays strong.”