Why Summit County’s fire districts seem to be immune to staffing challenges

Both Summit Fire & EMS and the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District recruit heavily from outside the county

A Summit Fire & EMS firefighter extinguishes a wildland fire near Silverthorne on May 19, 2020. While many entities struggle to staff up this year and last year, both fire districts in Summit County said this isn’t as much of an issue for their organizations.
Jason Connolly/For the Summit Daily News

Both the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District and Summit Fire & EMS are experiencing slightly higher call volumes compared to 2019, but both of these Summit County fire districts say that they have enough staff and resources to handle the influx.

These fire districts are singing a different tune compared to other government entities, businesses and organizations that have struggled to maintain enough staff to keep their operations running.

Red, White & Blue Fire deputy chief Drew Hoehn said his fire district has only hired about four to five people per year for the last few years. Part of this he attributes to the department’s scheduling, which he said makes it easier to hire employees from outside the county.

“Our firefighters work what’s called a 48/96 scheduled so they come up here for 48 hours — two days they are here — and they live in the station,” Hoehn said. “Then they’re off for 96 hours, four days. When you spread that (out) in the span of a month, they’re commuting up here five times a month, which is really manageable. Being anywhere from an hour and a half away, it’s right on the cusp of being a reasonable lifestyle for these employees.”

Hoehn said of the district’s 65 employees, 43% of them live within Summit County, 11% live in neighboring counties and the remainder of employees lives on the Front Range or beyond the adjacent counties to Summit. This means that 57% of the district’s employees do not live in Summit County.

Because the long drive is worth it for a single shift, Hoehn said the district is able to cast their net farther than other businesses who need employees to show up for consecutive days.

In 2019, the district — which covers Blue River, Breckenridge and some unincorporated sections of Summit County — received 2,909 calls. In 2020, the districts calls declined by about 15% to 2,459 calls. In 2021, the call volume was similar to 2019 numbers. That year, it received 2,933 calls.

Summit Fire & EMS saw an even greater increase in its call volumes. Steve Lipsher, spokesperson for the department, said the district received a total of 4,357 calls last year, which is 5% more than it received in 2020. In 2020, the district received 22% more calls than it did in 2019, but that’s because it was the first full year after absorbing Summit County Ambulance Service.

In 2019, the district responded to 3,402 calls, which is 14% more than it had the previous year.

In 2018, the district responded to 2,992 calls. This is the same year that it absorbed Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue and Copper Mountain Fire Department.

Leaders at both fire districts in Summit County say their staffing levels are not impacting their ability to respond to emergency calls.

A vast majority of the calls that Red, White & Blue and Summit Fire responds to are medical calls. Hoehn said these calls made up around 54% of calls for 2019 through 2021. According to Summit Fire’s annual report, rescue and medical calls made up 62% of that total volume for that year.

Lipsher said that Summit Fire has managed its staffing levels too. Lipsher said Summit Fire has built a talent pipeline where it recruits employees from neighboring counties and the Front Range.

“It is a constant part of our existence here,” Lipsher said. “Our human resources manager kind of has an open recruitment activity going on all the time. When you have a department of 100 people, there’s going to be some attrition, some turnover, some retirements — those types of things. Our intent is always to keep us fully staffed.”

In the past couple of years, Lipsher said that Summit Fire has taken steps to staff up a bit more to make sure employees were covered if they took sick leave or paid time off. In total, Summit Fire employs around 100 people.

Neither organization said it was concerned about staffing in the near future, but both noted that recruiting from the Front Range has its risks. Employees from those areas usually live in a slightly lower cost of living and some might live near a department that offers competitive wages and benefits that neither Summit County district said they can compete with.

In these instances, Hoehn said his focus is to offer employment packages, incentives and training opportunities that make it difficult to leave Red, White & Blue.

“Our goal is to really seek quality employees. We put a lot of work into our recruiting and our hiring process. Then downstream of that is really just to invest in our people and do what we can to retain them, but also that effort is centered around retraining our investment in employees,” Hoehn said. “The longer they are here, the more training they receive. They are gaining experiences. We want those tenured employees serving our district.”

One way the department stays competitive is by being dual accredited. In addition to be accredited through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, it’s also accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services. Hoehn said most fire districts are accredited by the first organization but not the second.

“Our focus up here is really to … be an outstanding department, a department that our employees are proud to work at and a department that is noticeably strives ahead of other organizations,” Hoehn said.

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