Where there’s smoke …
Imagine your kid driving to school on a beautiful Colorado morning, with friends in tow. As they near Eagle Valley High School, an oncoming truck smashes into them. Responders are quickly at the scene, however it happens to be a day where only one or two firefighters are on duty in Gypsum.
For departments operating on a shoestring budget, that situation could be a reality. The Gypsum Fire Protection District, which covers 455 square miles of western Eagle County and portions of Garfield County, finds itself struggling to provide a service level the community expects. The operation is primarily a volunteer fire department supported by paid staff — four full-time firefighters, six part-time firefighters and approximately 30 volunteers. The department maintains and staffs one station at 520 Second Street in Gypsum, and has a unoccupied maintenance building and training grounds in Dotsero. Sweetwater homeowners built a garage and a reserve brush truck is parked there.
Property taxes provide the majority of the district’s funding. In the past four years, the department has experienced a 53 percent decline in those property taxes. Although the district partners with the town of Gypsum, the department is financed by its own separate special district, and receives no funds directly from the town, including sales tax. No property tax is paid on land designated as open space, thus money is lost when open space is designated in the district.
The town of Gypsum does what it can to help Gypsum Fire. The town recently donated $12,500 to help purchase five sets of required bunker gear for volunteers. The district was recently unable to bring on any more volunteers because it didn’t have any safe protective clothing to offer them.
“This generous donation from the town helps with that, but much more is needed,” said Gypsum Fire Chief Justin Kirkland.
At the last Gypsum Town Council meeting, members asked Chief Kirkland to submit a request for funding. And it wasn’t limited to just high-priority items. Mayor Steve Carver told the fire chief “to put every single thing on that request – we will look at it.”
At that meeting, board members and staff were very committed to partnering with the Gypsum Fire Department in any capacity that they could. The support and concern was also evident in a joint statement recently released by Gypsum town manager Jeff Shroll and Carver: “We greatly value our new-found relationship and really appreciate the solid communication and cooperation Gypsum Fire has been promoting with the town the past several months. We believe they are doing the an excellent job and that is backed up by the recent new ISO ratings the town just received that can positively effect every resident’s home-owners insurance. In small towns, intergovernmental cooperation is key in providing the best in emergency services and we are proud to be partnering with Gypsum Fire.”
The Gypsum Fire Department recently experienced an ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating improvement to 3/3Y from 5/8B.
ISO ratings directly tie to property insurance rates. The ISO rating works on a 10-1 scale, with “1” being the best, and “10” being the worst. Insurance companies calculate rates based upon the ISO rating of a community’s fire department.
“This is a result of years of hard work and investment by both the town and the fire district,” says Chief Kirkland. “The key now is to maintain that rating; however, in order to do so, a significant investment is required to replace aged and damaged equipment as well as investing in the training and education of our volunteers.”
Failure at the polls
Last year the most recent bond issue for the department failed by a small margin, and there were some rumors floating around that the department was spending money extravagantly. Gypsum board member Pam Schultz says that is most definitely not the case.
“When the economy was good, the tax dollars were there for what was needed,” said Schultz. “Today this picture has changed. (There is a) lack of taxes, and failed ballot questions requesting more money to keep Gypsum Fire in a position to able to be there when the public needs them.”
Former Greater Eagle Fire Protection District board president Roxie Deane noted Gypsum Fire’s situation is not unique.
“The Gypsum Fire Department is fiscally responsible. Special districts have had a hard time since 2008 when property tax revenues plummeted,” said Deane. She noted that fire districts are 100 percent dependent on property taxes.
“I honestly can’t believe that the Gypsum Fire Department does as much as they do with as little as they have. They are amazing.”
As Gypsum Fire battles its funding challenge, some residents in the community have questioned the need for the new addition to the station.
“Most of our volunteers do not live in our community,” says Chief Kirkland. “We had volunteers who were dedicating themselves to 12-hour and 24-hour shifts, and they were sleeping on a couch or on mattresses in the restrooms.”
The department also needed a room where it could conduct local training.
“Our story is similar to many who were caught with bad timing and the collapse of the economy,” said Chief Kirkland. “We had the money at the time, and built to accommodate our growth and needs. Currently the building still serves the community well by providing a comfortable and functional place for volunteers to serve shifts, which sometimes allows us to improve staffing levels and shorten response times.”
But has property tax revenues have dried up, the department has had to lay off paid staff, and depend on unpaid volunteers to respond to emergencies. Schultz said that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“The public needs to be aware that when an emergency arises, yes they are still there to help, but may not be as quick to respond as people think they need to be,’’ she said.
Typical of all fire departments, volunteers have a large turnover rate, especially when the volunteers do not live in the area.
At the Gypsum Fire Department, new volunteers each require an approximate $13,500 investment for to equipment and training needs. For the past few years, there has been no training budget other than what is required to pay the state to keep existing certifications current. With the lack of budget for labor and overtime, there is no ability for the team to train as a full department or allow volunteers to take advantage of other outside trainings.
With the reduction in staffing over the past few years, the department is running at the minimum to still keep a crew on 24 hours a day. The new minimum for paid staff is one person. There have already been several days when the paid fire chief is the only person available.
“This reinforces the need for dedicated volunteers,” says Kirkland.
Under Kirkland’s leadership, partnerships and relationships have improved throughout the community. Greater Eagle Fire Protection District and Gypsum Fire Protection District have a long history of mutual aid, and in the last year the two departments have worked to strengthen the cooperation by sharing resources and tasks. Jurisdictional boundaries have become less of a concern and teamwork has been the focus.
An example of this is the sharing of chief officers. Currently the Gypsum Fire Chief covers both districts one day per week and one weekend per month. The Eagle Fire Chief covers both districts for a different day per week and a second weekend per month. This results in cost savings and time off for the chiefs. The two districts also train together when possible, saving money and increasing the skill sets of both departments.