Balentine

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine is pictured next to the department’s new off-road firefighting vehicle, which can be used to combat brush fires and backcountry emergencies. The vehicle was purchased through community donations.

The Aspen Fire Protection District would add up to eight paid firefighter positions to its mostly volunteer ranks if suggestions relayed in a report to the district’s board are realized.

A committee made up of 16 volunteer firefighters, all members of the Aspen Fire Department, compiled the report, which was provided to the board at its April 9 meeting. No decisions have been made. A work session on the topic, along with other recommendations, has been set for May 9. The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for May 14.

While the department often is referred to as a “volunteer” department, in practice it is a “combined” entity, consisting of eight paid staff and 34 volunteer firefighters, Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said Wednesday. The state has various categories for what can be considered a volunteer department, he said.

If the board decides to allocate funding for eight full-time firefighting positions, the department would be able to staff two firefighters 24 hours a day, all year long, at its downtown Aspen and North 40 fire stations, Balentine said, citing the report’s findings.

He said while he supports the addition of paid firefighters, the decision is up to the board.

“It’s their call on how we want to move forward,” Balentine said.

The district operates two more fire stations in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, in Woody Creek and Aspen Village. A fifth station was built recently in Starwood, with funding for construction, equipment and operations being covered by residents of that area.

The report from the committee of volunteer firefighters says that moving toward a fully paid department is “no one’s goal.” While volunteer firefighters are not paid, they do receive some benefits.

“A highly customized, well-crafted ‘combination department’ that preserves our primarily volunteer model fulfills this committee’s vision for best, responsible, reliable service for our community, within the limits of our mill-levy revenue,” the report says.

In the Nov. 6 election, local voters overwhelmingly supported a 1.25-mill property tax increase to give additional financial support to the district. The new tax is expected to provide an estimated $54.8 million over the next 20 years, supplementing the district’s longtime .875-mill tax that generates about $2.1 million annually.

The 1.25-mill increase will fall to .74 mills in 20 years once debt on construction of the affordable-housing complex is paid off, Balentine has said. When that occurs, the district’s combined mill-levy rate will drop to 1.6 mills. At the current combined rate of 2.125 mills, the Aspen district still has the lowest property-tax rate of all the state’s fire districts, due in part to the high property values of the upper valley.

During the run-up to the election, Balentine spoke of the rising cost of maintaining and upgrading equipment, the need for a new training officer and an employee-housing project near the district’s North 40 fire station as primary reasons for the tax increase. Without the extra revenue, Balentine said the district might not be able to meet basic needs and that it could go into the red as soon as 2020.

While Balentine did mention the possibility of paid firefighting positions during the campaign, it did not appear to be highlighted as a top necessity. A campaign flyer alludes to the need for extra money for “district staffing,” but does not specifically refer to the possible addition of paid firefighters.

It says: “Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our primarily volunteer force through the addition of appropriate training and dedicated staffing.”

Balentine said one of his responsibilities is to evaluate staffing from time to time to help the board decide how best to serve the community while ensuring safety within the department.

“It’s making sure we have the right mix of people out there at the right time,” he said. “To go out on these calls in the middle of the night, so that someone’s not out there by themselves, it’s important to have enough staff.”

Adding paid firefighters to the volunteer force “can only help” raise the overall professionalism of the department, Balentine said.

He said the department is not exactly understaffed, but there are some needs.

“We could use some help,” he said. “If we have a big call, an ‘all call’ like a structure fire, we do really well. Sometimes it’s the smaller, mundane calls that we need help with.”

Times have changed during Balentine’s 30 years with the Aspen Fire Department, and so have the organization’s requirements and regulations.

“You’re constantly playing catch-up,” he said.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.