Burning Issue

Firefighters in Denver's "money belt" enlist Broncos to help oust their governing board.

The 140 firefighters of the Castlewood Fire Department protect some of metro Denver's ritziest homes, including those of several Denver Broncos celebrities. Now the firefighters are getting in a few hits of their own, using a controversial pay-incentive program as a rallying cry to try to oust the existing fire-district boardmembers.

An election scheduled for May 5 could also result in a board favorable to eventual collective bargaining for the firefighters. But Tom Hendrix, vice president of the Castlewood Professional Firefighters Association, says firefighters are more concerned about stamping out Chief Thomas Montoya's "Pay for Value" program, which they say is practically unheard of in any other department.

Existing boardmembers say they are perplexed by the intensity of the firefighters' election campaign to replace them with the firefighters' slate of Jim Arcediano, Deborah Kenly and Will DePuy.

"The union firepower has surprised us," says boardmember Jim Varner. "They're going door-to-door passing out newsletters and slick brochures. It looks more like a Senate campaign than a fire-district election. Hell, they even got John Elway, Pat Bowlen and Steve Atwater to endorse their candidates. They're definitely loaded for bear."

Challenger Kenly says the reason the current boardmembers are surprised is that "in the past, no one out here even knew there were fire-district elections."

Only 600 people turned out to vote two years ago in the 55-square-mile district, which includes the upscale communities of Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village and extends south to Lone Tree, Park Meadows and Highlands Ranch. The district--which some people refer to as Denver's "money belt"--is the fourth-largest in the metro area, says Hendrix, but many of the people it serves assume it's under the jurisdiction of Greenwood Village or some other municipality. Instead, it's run by a five-member board that has attracted almost no attention in decades.

"The chairman of the board has been on it for fifteen years," says Kenly, "and he's never faced a significant challenge like this."

Troy Hansford, president of the Firefighters Association, argues that it's time for a change. "In the last fifteen years," he says, "this fire district has changed tremendously. Incoming calls have quadrupled during that period. We need fresh blood and fresh thinking to keep up."

Although there are other election issues, such as the need for a new dispatch center and an equipment maintenance facility, the chief's "Pay for Value" is the match that lit the firefighters' fuse. And that means that the current board could get burned. According to Hansford, a nine-year veteran of the department, "citizens are for anything that's good for the firefighters. We tell them what we want, and they say, 'Where do we sign up?'"

Behind the Pay for Value program, the first of its kind in Colorado, is the notion that firefighters can earn additional pay by being certified in any of more than fifty areas, ranging from being a member of the department's underwater rescue team to passing a basic CPR class. A firefighter is then ranked accordingly on a pay level ranging from one (the lowest) to five (the highest).

"In a nutshell," says Hendrix, "the system is designed for guys with lots of credentials. Underwater basket-weaving could qualify you for a level four or five, but that doesn't necessarily translate to on-the-job skills. But under this program, an experienced guy still gets paid less than a guy with a six-inch file full of credentials. Some of our best guys are level threes because they don't have a bunch of wallpaper crap. It's created a lot of animosity among the troops, because people are stepping all over each other to get promotions."

Another concern among the firefighters is that an on-the-job screwup could cause them to drop several pay levels in a heartbeat. "If you're a level five and you wrack up a rig, you're in big trouble now," says Hendrix. "In the past you just got a 'day at the beach' for screwing up. Now it's at the chief's discretion, and he can bump you down. The big concern is that once you get bumped down, it's hard to get back up, and you lose a lot of pay."

Montoya, who spent 17 of his 25 years as a firefighter in the Denver department, says this has happened only one time in the past year: A firefighter got knocked down a couple of levels when it was discovered that he didn't have the proper emergency first-aid certification. "In a lot of departments," says Montoya, "if you lose your certification, you lose your job. This program prevents that.

"I'm aware of the grumblings. You'd have to be deaf not to. But I'm not surprised by the resistance to the program. Firefighters are legendary for resisting change. But I still think it's a good program."

Some of the boardmembers do, too. "I think it's a great way to go through a rigorous performance appraisal," says Varner, who's been on the board for four years. "And most of our firefighters are well-qualified and can meet these requirements with minimal extra effort. I just think that a lot of the resistance to the program is a function of the union mentality, which says that no one person is supposed to be better than the next. That's not what this plan is about."

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