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Record high calls are stressing Colorado’s EMS, mountain firefighters

Fire chiefs struggle to hire firefighters, recruit volunteers because of high cost of living
Firefighters with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District fought a house fire in Carbondale on Sept. 17. (Courtesy of Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District)

There are more people living in their vacation homes in Colorado’s resort communities. There are more people visiting and staying in short-term rental homes.

“But it’s a challenge to quantify any of this,” said Jake Andersen, deputy chief of operations for the Aspen Fire Protection District.

Fire chiefs such as Andersen can gauge one impact of this shift: Call volume in just about every mountain valley reached record highs in 2021 and the calls for help in early 2022 are pacing ahead of last year.

The record increase in calls for emergency service – up 20% in 2021 from 2020 in Aspen, for example – is stressing fire and EMS chiefs as spiking costs of living and housing prices make it difficult to hire and retain firefighters and recruit volunteers. And the new wave of residents and visitors are challenging emergency service providers with longer, more involved issues and injuries.

The Colorado Sun surveyed 15 chiefs at fire protection districts spanning the Western Slope’s most trafficked regions in Eagle, Grand, Gunnison, Pitkin, San Miguel and Summit counties. All reported highest-ever call volume in 2021 and early 2022.

Here’s a sampling of quotes from chiefs when asked what is fueling the increase in calls for service.

  • “There’s not one easy answer, and that’s why we’ve been looking at it. It’s not like in one year we had a 15% population increase. We didn’t have a 15% increase in the homeless population. We didn’t have a 15% increase in traffic accidents. It’s been an across-the-board increase influenced by all those things.” – Deputy Chief Randy Black, Durango Fire Protection District. (5,080 calls in 2016; 5,251 calls in 2017; 5,394 calls in 2018; 5,404 calls in 2019; 5,481 calls in 2020; 6,284 calls in 2021, a 15% increase; and up 20% this year as of March.)
  • “Population increases and more folks working remotely so they are here more of the time.” – Division Chief Jenny Cutright, Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District. (1,395 calls for service in 2021, up from 1,247 in 2020 and 1,235 in 2019. First quarter of 2022: 303, versus 277 in 2021.)
  • “Higher visitation. More specifically, historically call volume increased beginning on Wednesday and peaked on Saturday, we now see a fairly even distribution throughout the week. Stated another way, the weekend hasn’t become less busy, midweek has become busier.” – Chief Mark Novak, Vail Fire Department. (2,110 calls for service in 2021, up from 1,896 in 2020 and 2,029 in 2019. First quarter of 2022: 598, versus 555 in 2021.)
  • “The steady increase in local population, which likely includes growth in the percentage of full-time residents, contributes to higher call volumes. We do anticipate this trend will continue.” – Chief Karl Bauer, Eagle River Fire Protection District. (2,669 calls in 2021, up from 2,502 in 2020 and 2,515 in 2019. First quarter of 2022: 792, versus 640 in 2021.)
  • “The ‘Zoom boom’ has forced a lot of the local workforce to move as the homes that were once rental units are now being occupied by the original owners or being sold. Building and construction in our valley is booming, much like many other mountain communities. People are taking more and more to the outdoors and Crested Butte offers amazing outdoor recreation opportunities.” – Chief Robert Weisbaum, Crested Butte Fire Protection District (801 calls for service in 2021, up from 744 in 2020 and 712 in 2019. First quarter of 2022: 274, versus 223 in 2021.)
  • “Our calls are changing, too. There’s a transition to the type of medical care the new residents need. It’s not as much about injuries. We are seeing more cardiac issues and strokes and such.” – Chief John Bennett Fire Protection District (1,540 calls in 2021, up from 1,348 in 2020 and 1,524 in 2019. First quarter of 2022: 545, versus 368 in 2021.)
Firefighters with the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District fought a fire in a home in Glenwood Springs’ Elk Springs community on Oct. 3. (Provided by the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District)

The chiefs are adapting responses and reorganizing teams to handle the shifting demand. They have hired more full-time firefighters, EMTs and administrators. They are ramping up volunteer recruitment. Many of these districts recently asked voters for tax relief, allowing them to collect more revenue from property taxes than what’s allowed under the state’s Gallagher Amendment. (In regard to Gallagher: The state must maintain a specific balance in tax collections from homes and commercial properties, so when home values rise, residential assessments drop to keep within that constitutional ratio. That’s bad for fire protection districts and other special taxing districts that rely on a percentage of that property tax revenue.)

The tax relief has helped, but fire districts are now thinking they need more funding for more firefighters and housing for those firefighters as well as firehouse expansions and more equipment. They are struggling with the need for increased training of volunteers on top of a lack of young volunteers. (A lot of the newcomers who can afford homes priced in the millions are older and not volunteering as firefighters.)

“We used to have folks on the sidelines always ready to play, but we are not seeing that anymore. It’s the cost of living. It’s the availability of affordable housing. People are living further away from the community they work in. That’s pretty consistent across all mountain communities,” Telluride’s Chief Bennett said. “And across all industries really. It’s a multitiered issue up here. It’s getting harder to provide services that many expect.”

The Telluride Fire Protection District station in Telluride. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

Cutright, with the Carbondale fire protection district, said it could be time to start paying volunteers “to keep an effective response force.”

Many of the chiefs reported more calls during the week.

“T​he weekend hasn’t become less busy, midweek has become busier,” said Vail’s Chief Novak.

Many also reported more all-hands-on-deck calls for critical emergencies.

In Aspen, for example, firefighters and EMTs responded to 130 “major incidents” in 2021, up from 110 in 2020 and 84 in 2019.

Brad White at the Grand Fire Protection District has tracked calls for emergency services for many years and overlaps those calls with his region’s supply of housing. His data shows call volume growing faster than the community’s number of homes. He says that’s because of changing use of homes as Grand County moves away from its agricultural roots.

“These days we have less agriculture, and more second homes, most of which are in the short-term rental (market),” he said. “So we have more people in town, doing more activities, and very few of them are familiar with the homes they are staying in.”

White said his district’s increasing number of calls – 72 so far this year, up from 51 at this time in 2021 – show only part of the shifting stress for his mostly volunteer firefighters. A small fire that typically could have been contained in a couple hours now takes all day as flames race through dry forests, he said. And responses to accidents take longer because of increased traffic on roads.

His team’s average time commitment for a call in 2014 was 35 minutes. Now it’s 63 minutes. And like most fire chiefs, White is seeing a spike in overlapping calls. In 2020 and 2021, 11% of his calls came when a fire engine was already out on another call.

“While our call volume isn’t huge, they aren’t spread out very well. We’ll go a couple of days and not run a call, but then we’ll go through a four-day period and run 18 calls,” White said

The cost of living and housing in rural mountain communities has made it hard to recruit volunteers as well as full-time firefighters. In Crested Butte, the fire district offers down payment assistance for new firefighters and EMTs, a chance to live in five employee housing units, stipends for volunteers and even a ski pass.

“Despite all we offer, we continue to struggle,” Weisbaum said.

The Durango Herald contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.