Colorado’s rural fire districts face changing roles
The evolution of a rural fire station
Throughout the past ten years, Platte Valley Fire Protection District has essentially become a new agency.
» 2006: Barry Schaefer became the district’s first paid staff member. Everyone else is a volunteer, like he had been since 1999.
» 2013: The district headquarters moved out of a small, four-decade-old, hand-built concrete building into a brand new facility.
» 2016: Of the district’s 50 employees, about half are paid.
Every day, Barry Schaefer leaves his home in Kersey and travels down one-lane county roads, surrounded by seemingly infinite frozen fields. He’s made the drive for 20 years. About three years ago, his destination changed. These days, he drives to a headquarters that dwarfs the concrete shelter where he used to work.
He’s headed to Platte Valley Fire Protection District’s gleaming firehouse, where he’s the chief. It’s filled with Kevlar-coated equipment, a fleet of shiny trucks, a kitchen with granite countertops and magnet-covered fridges and a lecture room so decked out residents rent it for wedding receptions.
Platte Valley moved out of its old concrete building in 2013. Volunteers hand-built that facility in the 1970s. It had five garage doors, two cramped offices and a meeting room. A half attic was the only storage available.
There were no living quarters. Kersey, Colo., is small, so volunteers from all over the Front Range would come help answer calls. They’d have to stay in a hotel, which was miles away — not an ideal situation for night calls.
“The guys would have to get up in the middle of the night, drive across town, and get in the truck,” Schaefer said. “It was easily a seven-to-eight minute delay.”
At the new station, firefighters need about a minute before they’re ready to take off.
Schaefer became a volunteer firefighter in rural Weld County in 1999. Everyone was a volunteer back then. He stayed put, preferring the intimate “small town feel” to the “big city approach.”
He became the Platte Valley’s first paid staff member in 2006. Now more than 20 people earn a living at the station.
For years, rural fire districts like the one Schaefer leads were manned by volunteers whose only job was to fight fires. Not anymore.
Fire chiefs, educators and industry representatives all point to three predominant reasons for the shift: the transition from volunteer to paid staffing, their communities’ changing needs and population growth.
FROM VOLUNTEER TO PAID STAFFING
Cities such as Greeley and Fort Collins have had paid firefighters for decades, Schaefer said, but it’s a relatively new practice for rural fire districts.
Most districts in the region formed in the 1950s. They were based on the idea of protecting the community by strong men and women who could take time off from tending their fields to go fight a neighbor’s house fire.
“They banded together to take care of their own,” Schaefer said.
In the later 2000s, when the Great Recession hit, finding volunteers became almost impossible. People couldn’t afford to fight fires during the day. They had to work.
“That’s what ultimately pushed us and our organization to hire folks,” Schaefer said.
Platte Valley became what’s known as a combination district. For the first few years, about five or six of the district’s roughly 50 positions were paid. Now, it’s about half paid and half volunteers.
Times they are a’changing
More and more calls required emergency medical services — such as wound care and airway support — instead of fighting a fire.
For years, the percentage of fire districts’ calls that require emergency medical services has climbed. Firefighters started doubling as emergency medical technicians to ensure they were giving out quality care. Now everyone seems to need that training.
“Just about every department that’s up along the Front Range demands that you have an EMT class,” said Capt. David Hudson at Hudson Fire Protection District.
In his district, all paid staff have to have EMT certification, which requires lessons in anatomy and life support services.
You can’t get one of those over the weekend. On average, EMT basic requires almost 300 hours in the classroom.
At Aims Community College, hardly anyone takes only fire science classes anymore, said Director of Fire Science Randy Souther.
Souther’s been at Aims since the mid-1990s, and when he got there, it was rare for firefighters to take EMT classes. They were expected to put fires out and respond to traffic crashes, and that was all.
Residents in rural areas began to realize they weren’t getting the same level of service their peers in cities did. That’s where the ambulances were, and residents had to wait for them to travel from a metro station to a rural home. That would take 20 or 40 minutes.
About 80 percent of Hudson’s calls are medical now, Capt. Hudson said. Of Platte Valley’s 619 calls in 2014, more than 60 percent were for medical services, according to the district’s website.
As the need for medical services grows, there’s a dip in the demand for firefighting.
Technological advances, education efforts and better building codes have decreased the number of fires in the Hudson district by 33 percent during the past few years.
Simple changes in appliances have made them safer. For instance, Capt. Hudson pointed at small space heaters. In the past, they could tip over and set the house ablaze. Now they shut off if they fall over.
People also didn’t know as much as they do now. As an example, they used to clean the ashes out of wood fireplaces and put them in bags in the garage, he said. If residents didn’t properly snuff the embers, their garage would soon be engulfed in flames. They would also leave oily rags sitting around, and those rags could spontaneously combust. Now, fewer houses have fireplaces, ones that still exist are usually gas, not wood-burning, and people leave the rags outside.
Fire districts also conduct outreach efforts at schools, and schools do safety training themselves, Hudson said. This generation’s kids tend to shy away from the fire-related mistakes their parents and grandparents made because they’ve gotten instruction.
“They’re pounding it in their heads that fire is bad,” he said.
Newer houses also have more sophisticated electric systems with fewer crossed wires and other hazards.
But because the firefighters see fewer house fires, they don’t have as much experience putting them out.
“We have to even train more because we just don’t get it that often,” Hudson said.
Although house fires are becoming uncommon, Hudson still sees its share of blazes. This is a county surrounded by fields, remember.
“We still get a lot of our grass fires, or haystack fires,” Hudson said.
These big brush fires often require more specialized equipment.
Platte Valley now has heavy-duty pickup trucks, with thick deeply ridged tires. They drive portable water tanks — what they call tenders — to locations too far from hydrants. The departments also respond to disasters other than fires.
Less than a month before the district’s namesake river flooded in 2013, Platte Valley got its first watercraft. It was a little orange motorboat.
The river runs through the center of Platte Valley’s 220-square-mile district. During the flood, in some places the river spread a mile wide. Organizers learned they didn’t need a bigger boat. They just needed more. They now have three, and a trailer that can carry two at a time.
Schaefer admitted sheepishly that Platte Valley was one of the first stations to get an endless swimming pool, it’s a small tub with jets that form a current for swimmers to work against. It seems like a luxury, but the district’s search and rescue crew need the swimming practice, and they aren’t going to do it outside during a Colorado winter.
Some of the districts need their most impressive equipment because of the very industry that has helped pay for the stations’ expansion.
OIL AND GAS
Platte Valley’s heavy rescue truck is one of the crew’s most prized possessions. There are no hoses on it, no water connections.
“It’s a gigantic toolbox,” Schaefer said.
It carries a set of the Jaws of Life — giant pliers strong enough to cut cars apart. It has a huge Kevlar balloon, which firefighters use to prop trucks up to grab people out from under them. It can lift 80,000 pounds. It has a mechanism that can lift the firemen up to grab people from soaring heights. Soaring heights, such as the top of an oil derrick.
As drilling peaked in the summer of 2014, the industry’s workers became some of the Platte Valley district’s most common patients.
That summer, Schaefer said, there were 10,000 workers a day in the area.
“Imagine the traffic pattern that goes with that,” he said.
Trucks clogged county roads, and the increased traffic caused crashes.
There were also accidents on the sites, and without the contents of the gigantic tool box, the firemen couldn’t have helped.
Fire districts get their funding from property taxes. In Colorado, residents are charged a lower rate than business. Oil and gas companies are charged the highest rate, and it’s based on the market value of the oil they produce.
“We are predominately oil and gas driven out here,” Shafer said. “Oil and gas is what’s making us float.”
Before the boom, the district’s budget hovered at about $250,000 annually, Schaefer said. As of late, it’s been about $4 million.
“When you see growth over the course of 14 years, that’s tremendous,” he said.
Although oil and gas have made it easier for Weld County to respond to increased demand, counties without access to skyrocketing property tax revenues have also expanded.
Rural fire districts across Colorado are seeing the same thing: more calls with a much higher emphasis on medical and emergency needs, said career firefighter Mike Rogers.
He’s worked in the Denver and Conifer areas for 30 years and is now the president of Colorado Professional Fire Fighters. The organization functions like a union, helping districts with management and advocating for them at the capitol.
Most of the growth on the Western Slope has taken place along the Interstate 70 corridor, he said. They’ve seen three or four combination departments — where about half the firefighters are paid — pop up recently.
“The majority of that growth has happened in the past five years,” he said.
More than anything, Rogers attributes the changes to growth. People continue flocking into areas that used to be sparsely populated and didn’t get service from big providers, such as Greeley, Fort Collins and Denver.
“Living here my whole life, it used to be rural areas between here and Greeley,” he said from Denver. “As much as our state is growing, everybody’s stretching out into rural areas.
It compounds the problem even more.”
Schaefer doesn’t see it as a problem.
“It’s been fascinating to see the development of the agencies in the county,” he said.
After 9/11, Schaefer said, people saw firefighters did more than rescue cats from trees. Now, people have to learn they do more than fight fires. ❖
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I want to address a couple of issues in this week’s editor’s note.