Vail Valley first responders facing new challenges |

Vail Valley first responders facing new challenges

Teamwork is essential for firefighters, rescue crews, but that's more difficult in the days of social distancing

Fire calls require crews to work shoulder to shoulder. That's more difficult in the days of social distancing.
Photo courtesy Chelsey Johnson/Gypsum Fire Protection District
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Working remotely can be a relatively easy transition for many of us. But working shoulder to shoulder can be tough in an age of social distancing.

The Gypsum Fire Protection District’s staff is about evenly split between paid and volunteer firefighters. The paid staff lives at the fire station during shifts. But unless there’s a call, the firefighters stay isolated in the station.

But, Gypsum Fire Protection District Chief Justin Kirkland said, social distancing applies even for the teams at the station.

When the firefighters are in the residential quarters, they’re required to keep their distance from each other. When the crew is training or working on apparatus, people wear masks.

That’s good for teamwork, for the paid staff. But volunteers aren’t allowed into the station for training or other tasks.

That’s difficult because volunteers are held to the same training and performance standards as the paid staff.

Keeping up while staying away

To help the volunteers keep up, Kirkland said the department does a Sunday night check-in via video conference.

“We talk about what they’ll do this week, and what’s coming up,” Kirkland said, adding that the calls help volunteers and paid staff feel connected with each other.

Still, he said, the department has been able to follow current social distancing directions. Those who can work from home do so.

Things change when there’s a call, though.

“We’ve had to adjust how we do everyday business,” Kirkland said, adding that the station’s residential area is kept as a sterile environment as much as possible.

The good news is that calls are down this spring. Kirkland said call volume usually drops between winter and summer. This season, though, call volume is unusually light.

Vail Mountain Rescue Group has also seen a drop in the number of calls for help.

Helping others and each other

That group is an all-volunteer effort. Ted Katauskas of Vail Mountain Rescue said that group is making extra efforts to keep its members engaged. Members are reaching out to each other, by phone and online, just to check in.

When teamwork is critical, team members have to know the procedures, of course. But they also need to know that every team member knows what to do and when.

“It’s weird not to congregate except when a page goes out,” Katauskas said. “We don’t see each other except on a mission now.”

Checking in with each other also helps with some of the stress that comes with rescue work.

“As first responders, we’re always looking out for other people,” Katauskas said. “The push now is we need to be looking out for each other and ourselves.

Like fire calls in Gypsum, search and rescue calls have declined during the past several weeks.

“The community is laying low, and we really appreciate it,” Kirkland said.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of rescues, which has been good,” Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said. “People by and large have been respectful” of a request to not venture deep into the backcountry.

When first responders are called, how they deal with the public has changed. Masks, gloves and other gear are requirements, not recommendations.

That new way of working “goes against every fiber of my being,” van Beek said. “I’m always (bugging officers) about getting off their phones and out in the community.”

But, he added, the new protocols are “the only way we can continue to function.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at

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