First responders feeling the effects of housing crisis

Sherry Burlingame, chief of police at the Steamboat Springs Police Department, said hiring has become an issue not because of pay, but because of the housing crisis. She said she too struggled to find a home since moving to the valley and being sworn in as the first female chief on Jan. 25, 2022
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

For years, housing prices in Steamboat have been an issue, worsening throughout the pandemic and now becoming a risk to public safety.

Over half of Steamboat Springs Police Department officers live outside city limits, according to chief of police Sherry Burlingame. Burlingame cites the cost of living in town as a big reason her team has been short staffed for months.

“Last week, I had a sergeant that basically worked seven days in a row,” Burlingame said. “That wears on you.”

Steamboat Springs police officers alternate between 12-hour day and night shifts, starting and ending at 5:45 in the mornings and evenings.

For the sergeant Burlingame mentioned, seven days of 12-hour shifts makes for an 84-hour workweek. That sergeant commutes from Hayden, too, so he spent an extra hour each day on the road.

Burlingame says she wants to reduce the length of officers’ shifts to 10 hours.

“I’m not a fan of 12-hour shifts at all,” she said. “I think they can ultimately become dangerous and lead to burnout in our officers and create a high stress environment for them. But right now, we’re not staffed at the level that we need to be to support that.”

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue is also facing difficulties from the cost of housing. Fire chief Chuck Cerasoli said the housing crisis can affect response times. He explained larger fire calls or a high number of concurrent calls require calling in firefighters from home, so having on-call firefighters living outside of town can create challenges.

“We sort of get that second wave of our firefighters that are responding from home to help out and they usually can bump us from eight to 12 or 16 people,” Cerasoli said. “But more and more of our firefighters are living in outlying communities.”

Paying less than $1,500 a month in Steamboat usually requires splitting rent with roommates. For police officers and firefighters, many of whom have families and work odd hours, sharing a home is not an option.

The sheriff’s office received pay increases earlier in the year, and Burlingame said the SSPD recently did as well, putting most starting annual salaries for police officers well over $60,000, and veteran officers and sergeants are commonly paid over $70,000.

The pay raise was meant to make SSPD more competitive compared to police departments on the Front Range, and ideally help the department acquire a full staff, but salaries have proven to be just part of the dilemma.

“Nobody here is going to complain about the salary that they’re making,” Burlingame said.

Because the cost of living makes moving here from out of town difficult, the department has been doing its best to recruit locally.

Hiring experienced officers would be ideal, as they would have already gone through the academy and could contribute shortly after the job offer, but those officers are choosing to work elsewhere.

The challenge with recruiting locals is they almost always need to be trained and certified, a process that can take months or even a whole year.

Even paying similar salaries, SSPD is struggling to compete with the lower residential prices of the Front Range communities.

“If it’s hard for me to find a place to live, then it’s really hard for my officers,” said Burlingame.

According to The Steamboat Group, sales volume in Steamboat doubled from 2019 to 2021, from $905 million to $1.83 billion. The average sale price of single-family homes in Steamboat, 2021, was $1.48 million, up 38% from 2020.

Similar trends are being seen in nearby communities such as Hayden, Oak Creek, Yampa and Phippsburg.

“It’s not just police officers and firefighters,” Burlingame said. “It’s nurses and medical workers and, you know, our people that are holding down the fort with our businesses and restaurants in town.”

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