Steamboat fire chief sounds alarm about future funding, resources |

Steamboat fire chief sounds alarm about future funding, resources

Steamboat Springs Fire and Rescue members gather around the old dorm at The Lowell Whiteman School . The unused building was set on fire so that the firefighters could study the characteristics of the different stages a fire goes through and learn better and safer ways to fight fires.
John F. Russell/File

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Mel Stewart spoke with a sense of urgency last week when he told the city’s elected officials he thinks it’s time to ask the community for a dedicated funding source for fire and EMS services.

“The fire department is running with too few staff, and there’s an increasing risk of adverse consequences to the community,” Stewart said.

He said the department was now at a crossroads.

“We’re seeing an increase in calls and demand for services, and we don’t have any way for us to grow and meet those demands right now,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s comments come as the city’s elected officials and the rural fire district that surrounds the city are in talks about possibly asking voters in the city to join a unified district funded by a dedicated funding source, such as a property tax.

In the meantime, Stewart is expressing concern about the city’s inability to meet new demands for emergency services under the current funding structure, which relies on sales tax revenue from visitors and residents in the city limits, and a property tax for county residents who live in a donut-shaped district just beyond the city limits.

An $8 million downtown fire station is also in the city’s long-term capital improvement plan.

Stewart said he’ll be asking for more full-time employees next year because the city’s reliance on part-time workers has led to a situation where full-time staff is accruing several hours of overtime, and part-time workers are leaving for other jobs on the Front Range after they get their training here.

An increase in call volume is also testing emergency responders.

Five times last month, firefighters and paramedics in the Steamboat area had to respond to an emergency call with what they consider a substandard response. In some cases, that means fewer personnel than normal go to the scene, or responders must first come from home, possibly delaying a response time.

City officials noted that none of the substandard responses led to any negative consequences.

But had a man who went into cardiac arrest had his health emergency 30 minutes later, he could have been the third call of the hour instead of the first.

And Stewart told the council it is unlikely he would have seen the same life-saving response he got at Howelsen Hill.

These concurrent calls, which occur when firefighters and paramedics are going to multiple calls at the same time, tax resources. And as the call volume continues to increase, the chances of them happening, and leading to a negative outcome, also increase.

With these issues at play, Stewart told the council he thinks some of the fire and EMS departments needs have been getting pushed into future budget years.

“I think we’re getting strapped by pushing things out and saying we’ll get to it then,” he said. “We need to get to it now.”

Stewart’s comments came immediately after he proposed to the council that he would like to see a downtown fire station constructed in 2019 and staffed by 2020.

He noted some have said that timeline might be too aggressive, but he was concerned about continuing to push that project out into the future.

City Council members were receptive to Stewart’s concerns, with several of them saying the future of fire and EMS funding should be a top priority for the council in the coming weeks.

Councilwoman Sonja Macys said “very little has changed” since the fire discussion was made a priority for the city back in 2011.

“Staffing issues are the same if not similar,” she said. “How far down the road can it be continued to be kicked without losing significant personnel, having higher costs, having higher training and having lower morale.”

Council President Jason Lacy said he thinks the idea of creating a unified fire district with a dedicated source of funding makes sense.

“Sales tax (revenue) is not an appropriate way to fund fire,” he said. “It’s not, and it never will be.”

Council members Lisel Petis and Scott Ford are serving as the council representatives in the discussions with the fire district.

Council members are expected to continue their discussions about a potential ballot initiative to create a new fire district with a dedicated funding source at a meeting next month.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10.

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