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Publish Date: 9/12/2005

Volunteer firefighters Anita Sturtz, left, and Nancy Mason share a laugh Aug. 13 while training near Gold Hill. Cherryvale recently joined with the neighboring Eldorado Springs Fire Protection District after repeatedly seeing both departments respond to the same emergencies. Times-Call/Joshua Buck

Burning question
Boulder County relies on 24 fire districts, eschewing consolidation

Gold Hill’s fire department operates on $43,000 a year with a small volunteer staff and two aging tanker trucks in the “fire barn” at the end of the town’s unpaved Main Street.

Cherryvale firefighters serve pricey neighborhoods southeast of Boulder with four stations, 32 full-time firefighters, 12 volunteers and a $2.4 million tax base.

Boulder County has 24 fire districts, ranging from professionally staffed, well-funded departments like Cherryvale to rugged volunteer groups like the one in Gold Hill.

During a wildfire, crews with varying levels of equipment and expertise rely on coordination from Boulder County Sheriff’s dispatchers and hours of discussions between fire chiefs to fight blazes effectively.

In smaller emergencies, firefighters in one district often respond to a car crash or house fire on the edge of the next district because of mutual-aid agreements between departments.

It’s not the most efficient system imaginable, retired sheriff’s emergency coordinator Larry Stern said last month.

Officials occasionally discuss creating a large district that would place professional fire crews at stations around the county. But many of the county’s two dozen fire chiefs bristle at that idea, Stern said.

“I think it’s the way to go. But it’s hard to convince people because of all the different mill levies — and the egos involved,” Stern said.

Changing times

Boulder County’s patchwork of fire districts developed over decades. Stressing local governance, each fire district became its own “empire,” running a unique department that levied property taxes at a different rate than surrounding districts, Stern said.

Despite continuing resistance by many county fire chiefs, several county districts have taken small steps toward a countywide system by merging with neighboring departments.

Many of Boulder County’s mountain departments train together regularly while maintaining their individual administrations and tax bases. The departments are slowly standardizing their equipment and raising the bar on firefighter training, Stern said.

“I think (consolidation) is going to be a natural evolution of keeping the firefighters trained,” Stern said. “It’s more technical than it used to be. They don’t have beer in the pop machines at the station. They’ve come into the 21st century.”

Cherryvale Fire Protection District Chief Mike Tombolato said one of the current system’s main disadvantages is that it leads to redundancies in spending.

One district will often purchase the same tanker as a neighboring district, when a single tanker would be sufficient to cover both areas. The disparate departments pay more for insurance and equipment than they would under a single authority, he said.

“I’m sure it probably worked great in its day,” Tombolato said. “But does there need to be a chief every 5 miles down the road? Do we all need to have a training officer? Do we all need to have the same type of equipment?”

Cherryvale recently joined with the neighboring Eldorado Springs Fire Protection District after repeatedly seeing both departments respond to the same emergencies.

After merging in June, the departments now train together, organize the equipment on their trucks in the same places and follow the same procedures during an extrication or structure fire, Tombolato said.

The deal lets Eldorado Springs augment its single-station, eight-volunteer department with help from Cherryvale’s more extensive professional resources. Cherryvale added several badly needed water-tenders — fire trucks that transport water from a water source to an emergency — to its fleet by using trucks from the Eldorado Springs fleet.

Fire departments across the country have cut administrative costs and boosted efficiency by consolidating, and Boulder County should follow suit, Tombolato said.

“I don’t think anyone can argue with consolidation,” he said. “I’m not saying we need to do it because we can’t provide service. But I bet I could stretch a few nickels further.”

The ‘poster child’

The Poudre Fire Authority in Larimer County is a “poster child” for smart consolidation and increased efficiency for smaller fire departments, Tombolato said.

Poudre, which serves 150,000 residents and much of Larimer County, formed in 1981 to prevent a doubling of resources between firefighters in Fort Collins and rural areas of the county.

Poudre’s economies-of-scale approach is effective, authority spokesman Jason Mantas said, but large fire districts still wrestle with their own problems.

Poudre must still coordinate in emergencies with several small, volunteer fire departments in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Mantas said.

And Poudre often struggles with Larimer County’s five emergency dispatch centers. Relaying information from one station to the next can be confusing during an emergency, Mantas said.

Communications are less of a concern in Boulder County, which has four dispatch centers and relies mostly on the central system in Boulder during a wildfire.

“Sometimes just coordinating different dispatch centers can make a huge difference,” Mantas said. “Communications can be the biggest problem in mutual-aid situations.”

A tough sell

Many local fire officials say Boulder County’s network of fire districts works just fine in its current form. They say reconfiguring would be too much trouble.

Lafayette Fire Chief Gerry Morrell said consolidation would be a tough sell for his constituents, who annually pay about $27 per capita for fire protection through sales tax revenue collected by the city, while residents of surrounding districts shell out around $100 a year in property tax.

City departments save money by using human resources, finance and legal personnel at city hall, while fire districts have to hire their own consultants, Morrell said.

Consolidation could hurt smaller volunteer districts if prospective firefighters who might take ownership in their neighborhood department are turned off by the idea of a countywide authority, Gold Hill Fire Chief Chris Finn said.

“You wouldn’t have that community pride, and we have enough trouble drawing volunteers as it is,” Finn said.

Under the current system, small-town chiefs can draft local volunteers and still pitch in during emergencies, county emergency services supervisor Dave Booton said.

Chiefs in the Boulder County Firefighters Association meet monthly to discuss training and critique their performance in recent wildfires, Booton said.

The BCFFA occasionally discusses consolidation but has never moved forward with a plan, Booton said.

Ultimately, pride may be the biggest roadblock to consolidation, Stern said. If the districts consolidated, 23 of the 24 chiefs in the BCFFA would lose their jobs.

“I think life would be better myself, but it’s hard to tell someone who’s a chief of a small department, who donates a lot of time and effort, that they’re not going to be the chief anymore,” he said.

Brad Turner can be reached at 720-494-5420, or by e-mail at bturner@times-call.com.

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