Fire crew

(Left to right) Scott Arthur, Charlie Curtis and Jeff Edelson pose in front of an Aspen Fire Protection District truck.

Firefighting has changed immensely during Scott Arthur’s 40-year career. As technology changes the primary building materials used in construction, for instance, it also changes how fires behave — and that means fire service has had to evolve with the times.

“We used to talk about the 20-minute rule: If you’re not making significant progress on a fire within 20 minutes, you need to consider evacuating the building,” he said. “Nowadays ... we are reaching an unsafe situation within less than 10 minutes. The furnishings inside homes 40 years ago were predominantly wood, leather, wool and cotton. Now, 80 percent of what’s in this room right now is some sort of petrochemical base. Literally, it’s solidified gasoline.”

Those more hazardous conditions are among the many reasons that increased training is so critical to maintaining a modern fire service. To better address those needs, Aspen Fire has used some of the funds from the mill levy increase approved by voters last November to hire a dedicated training division. 

Currently, it’s a three-person division: Charlie Curtis, Jeff Edelson and Arthur. Edelson and Arthur have more than 70 years of firefighting experience between the two of them and worked in Snowmass before coming to AFPD.

“Right now, we’re kind of moving into this and transition into us being able to implement our new training plan the first of the year,” Edelson said. “We’re not looking to shake things up or change things; what we’re really trying to do is organize all of the expertise we have in-house, get that information, put it down on paper and figure out how we can institutionalize it and pass it on to our newer folks.”

The plan is to transition the division to Curtis’ leadership in 2020. 

“Myself and Charlie were approached with the mill levy increase to basically try to set up more of a training division,” Edelson said. “Jump forward to where we are today, the whole idea evolved, and it’s the three of us that are doing it together. Charlie’s newer to the fire service at five years but is one of our up-and-coming stars.”

Curtis was promoted internally from an inspector to full-time training manager in late August. Edelson and Arthur work part-time as trainers.

“I was working as an inspector, but on the side, I was trying to put together a recruitment program for us to sort of change how we do things,” Curtis said. “More and more of my time was going towards that, so it seemed a natural transition. We were looking for someone to move into the training position, and chief decided that since I was already kind of focusing on that, I could move on pretty easily.”

As for as the recruitment program, Curtis saw an opportunity to increase retention of new recruits. Previously, accepted applicants went straight to fire academy before working with the department; Curtis’ approach reversed that process.

“We’ll bring people in for a six-month probationary period. It’s sort of a slow stepping stone into the culture of Aspen Fire, into how they can be successful support members until they go to fire academy,” he said. “We would get people involved almost immediately, but also on a slow progression so they can see whether or not they actually have the time and the passion for this before we say, ‘Go to fire academy.’”

It’s not unusual for a volunteer firefighter to experience burnout before ever gaining much real experience putting out fires, he continued. 

“People don’t have time for it,” he said. “But now with this slow progression, we have more people saying, ‘Actually, I don’t think this is going to fit my schedule.’ There is a lot of time that you have to put in to volunteer, for sure.”

Arthur estimated that a first-year firefighter will likely invest between 200 and 300 hours into volunteering — and that’s not including the hours spent on call, at the ready to respond to an emergency.

That said, it can be difficult to quantify an exact number of hours required of a volunteer, Edelson noted.

“There’s various time commitments for training, calls, business meetings, education. So it’s kind of broken down into categories, and different people do it at different paces,” he said. “But like any new job or volunteer role, it’s frontloaded to get you up to speed, and then once you’re up to speed, things step back a little bit.”

Still, Aspen Fire now counts five recruits among its ranks. That’s a major improvement for the department, which currently has 36 volunteers.

“I think the general consensus I’ve heard in meetings is we’d like to get up to about 45. It’s been tough because there was a significant time period where they weren’t recruiting anyone,” Curtis said. “They went seven years without taking on a new member. As we’re losing some of the older gentlemen, we’re bringing people up to speed. It takes three to five years for them to get to an area where they can operate the equipment and actually have some experience on the fireground to replace the members that we’re losing from the veterans.”

Now, with Edelson and Arthur aiding with administration, the training division is poised to draft a full training manual — with input from the staff and volunteers, to whom they’ve already reached out.

“In order for us to complete this task, we will create a written training manual for use and reference by all. This training manual can and will only be created using the input and guidance of the current firefighters and officers,” an internal memo reads. “We recognize the immense experience and skill that many of you hold and look forward to being able to capture that to help Aspen Fire grow.”

Ultimately, Edelson, Arthur and Curtis all emphasized that their roles are collaborative in nature — by institutionalizing training standards that are scalable, everyone at every level within the department can feel more confident and safer in their fire service.

“You want consistency,” Edelson said. “Our job is to help coordinate things so that when one captain has a training with his crew and another captain has a training with another crew, the end result is the same. We don’t end up with two different agencies within an agency.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.