BOULDER — Larry Stern is an anomaly in 21st-century law enforcement.
He wears moccasins, is incapable of political correctness and suffers fools poorly. He always carries a revolver. And sometimes it’s an ivory-handled revolver.
“People always give me a hard time about the ivory,” Stern said recently, his trademark sunglasses firmly in place. “I say, ‘Why? I killed the mastodon it came from.’”
That’s a joke, in case you were wondering. With Stern, the county’s retiring emergency services director, it’s sometimes a little hard to tell.
Stern, 70, is a favorite among reporters because he’s unusually candid in his assessments of disasters, from fires to floods to major accidents. Candid is one way to put it. Another way is “fireable,” if it were anyone else.
“He has a great sense of humor,” Boulder Fire-Rescue Chief Larry Donner said. “Sometimes it tends to get him in trouble. For the most part, it’s been real useful in relaxing the situation and getting people to take a deep breath. He just keeps things in perspective.”
At 3 a.m. came a report of a second fire on Flagstaff Mountain. It was a false alarm, a dispatcher reported.
“The smoke reflected off the moon made it look like a fire,” a dispatcher told Stern.
“Copy; they got a moon on Flagstaff,” Stern replied.
— July 21, 2002
Stern’s candor sometimes angered a public unused to hearing someone tell it like it is. But his colleagues say Stern’s decades-long tenure earned him the right to speak his mind.
Stern started his career as a firefighter with the Martin Marietta fire department in 1960, then moved to the Boulder Fire-Rescue Department in 1965, working his way up to assistant fire chief.
Then came a Jan. 26, 1982, training accident in which two firefighters were killed, one of them from Longmont. Stern, who was in charge of department training at the time, was fired, then reinstated two months later as assistant fire marshal.
Stern wasn’t present during the training exercise, but he said “the buck stops here” because he was in charge of department training, according to a 1982 Daily Times-Call story.
Stern worked as a fire marshal for two more years, retiring from the department with 20 years of service in June 1984.
But his retirement didn’t last long. He was immediately hired by the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office as a sergeant in the county’s emergency services department.
“We feel fortunate if we get it to the scene and not have to tow it back,” Stern said at a budget hearing Tuesday, as he urged commissioners to approve the request for a $125,000 van for the emergency services department. — Oct. 16, 2001
Sheriff George Epp hired Stern to help run the emergency services department. At the time, the agency was mostly concerned with teaching fire-safety classes, investigating fires and coordinating efforts to contain wildfires and hazardous spills.
Until Friday, Stern also served as the emergency services manager for the city of Boulder.
Today, the Emergency Service Department has a handful of employees who, in addition to their regular duties, work with Homeland Security to protect residents from man-made disasters.
They monitor flooding, coordinate wildland firefighting, find lost hikers and supervise multi-agency rescues in the mountains. Emergency services workers coordinated both the Overland Fire response and the dig-out effort when about 250 skiers and snowboarders were trapped by an avalanche at Eldora Mountain Resort in March 2003.
During disasters, Stern often threatens to shoot reporters who get in his way or to make them disappear.
“If you write something we don’t like, next time we might just direct you off a cliff or shoot you,” Stern said this summer at a lunch with reporters.
“The weak link in our system is the notification and getting people to take some action,” Stern said. “We’re confident in our ability to predict a flood, but we’re not so confident that citizens will do anything until they’re standing knee-deep in water.” — June 2, 2001
Stern also shepherded the county through its Y2K preparations, which he thinks were valuable even though nothing really happened.
Sheriff Joe Pelle, who worked alongside Stern for years, said his colleague’s decades of experience proved valuable over and over. Pelle said the first hours of the 2003 Overland Fire proved that.
“I got up to that Overland Fire at about 7 a.m. It was still real small. Larry just walked up to me and said, ‘Hang onto your ass, boss. We’re in for a really long day.’ That’s 40 years of experience talking. He knows the stuff. He doesn’t have to look at a book.”
Ground teams battling high winds and blowing snow found the wreckage of a missing plane buried in snow Sunday afternoon on a glacier in the mountains west of Nederland, but no one was on board.
“We’ve got a mystery,” said Boulder County Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Stern. “We think we know who the pilot is, but we can’t confirm one way or the other. Not until we find bodies, somebody walking around or somebody calls us from Vegas on a cell phone telling us they just won big.” — June 6, 1999
Pelle said he’s also been impressed by the way Stern doesn’t need a phone book to figure out who to call when he needs help. Having been in Boulder County since 1965, Stern knows pretty much everybody who is anybody.
“He knows everybody with the state, with the Forest Service, fire, rescue,” Pelle said. “You need to go to the capital, he knows who you need to talk to. That’s a great asset. And I’m going to miss that.”
By rights, Stern should have been gone long ago. He’s on his third liver and had initially planned to retire from the sheriff’s office after about five years. He had put in a full 20 years with Boulder Fire-Rescue and was entitled to be done. But he put in another 20 years with the sheriff’s office.
During a retirement party Friday night, someone joked that Stern would have to go out and buy a new wardrobe since he’s worn nothing but Boulder fire and sheriff’s office uniforms for the last 40 years.
Donner, who’s been around for 15 years, said Stern’s experience matters greatly.
“He’d been around and seen a lot. He had perspective to add,” Donner noted. “When you have the perspective that long tenure gives you, that helps. He didn’t have to prove himself to anyone.”
Still, Donner said there are plenty of stories about Stern’s humor. Many of them can’t be repeated in the newspaper.
Said Pelle: “He shoots from the hip.”
And with only six shots, Stern makes them count.
Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at email@example.com.