An era of Eagle history quietly ended earlier this month when Greater Eagle Fire Department Chief Jon Asper retired.
Asper had led the department for 17 years. He joined Eagle fire as a volunteer in 1985 and was the first paid department employee. At retirement, he leaves a department that has 18 paid firefighters and full-time professional coverage. In fact, he cites the department's professionalism as the top accomplishment during his tenure.
"I am really proud of the quality of training up there," said Asper. "We are not only recognized countywide but also throughout the state."
Asper said the key department turning point that happened under his watch was a mill levy increase and the institution of impact fees. The department simply needed more funding to make the step from an all-volunteer outfit to a professional fire department. With the additional money, Asper was able to bring in more life/safety expertise. With more experts in the ranks, the fire department has been able to improve its response times and its fire insurance ratings. Impact fees and fire ratings aren't as glamorous as actual firefighting, but Asper notes they are critical to the protection of lives and property.
"We have saved more lives that way than we have going out with the trucks," said Asper.
"We have to start protecting a house two years before it shows up on the tax rolls," said Asper, to illustrate the importance of impact fees. "And we have lowered our ISO (fire insurance rating) from 8.5 to 5.9. We can't get any lower until we build another fire station."
Community outreach efforts were also a hallmark of Asper's leadership. Asper would send out personnel to shovel sidewalks or otherwise help senior citizens or other community members who were unable to do the work themselves. Fire personnel would be available to help out when hospital patients returned home from surgery. And yes, they would also help when a family pet found trouble.
"I am proud of that tradition, when you have a problem, you call the fire department," said Asper. "Its all about helping the public."
He also opened up the fire station doors to the community. Parents could book birthday parties at the site or arrange to have a fire truck visit during a special event. On Halloween, the trucks travel the streets of Eagle, handing out glow sticks and treats to costumed kids.
Speaking of kids, Asper has been Santa Claus for many local youngsters. For many years, the fire department and the Eagle Masons/Castle Lodge 122 have teamed up for a Christmas toy drive.
Asper knows the importance of community involvement first hand. He was a business operator in town when fire department leaders Ken Norman, Bill Jones and Bob Shelton sought him out for some help. They wanted to stage a benefit dinner so the department could purchase equipment to refill oxygen tanks. Asper was running the bar at the former Winterhawk restaurant at the time and he enthusiastically jumped at the chance to spearhead the benefit project.
It's now 25 years later, and the Greater Eagle Fire Department Barbecue and Barn Dance is still celebrated in early September. Proceeds from the event have purchased an array of firefighting equipment, including an ATV, thermal imaging cameras, airpacks and breathing apparatus.
As he begins his retirement from the fire department, Asper has taken a part-time job with Vail Electronics. He also plans to continue many of his community service projects, working through the Masons. He noted he has already arranged for lawn power raking for 13 local seniors.
"And for things like the toy drive, we are bringing in partners and we will actually enhance it," said Asper. "I want to continue that kind of work. I think it is important."
While he plainly likes to keep busy, Asper said his new schedule has given him time to rediscover his family. "And my dogs don't bark at me when I come through the door anymore. They finally recognize me," he said with a laugh.
As he thinks about his nearly 20-year tenure with the Greater Eagle Fire Department, Asper speaks with pride about the operation and its personnel.
"The Greater Eagle Fire Department is not just one guy. It's not just one person, it's a team. It is a class operation," he said.