Too Many Fire Chiefs

Evergreen Fire/Rescue is burning money ó and residentsí patience.

"The perfect storm for Evergreen Fire/Rescue was this board, Joel Janov and money," says Julie Kling, one of the BEST organizers, whose husband, George, recently resigned from the volunteers. "When we had all three is when we started having problems."

There are more than 26,000 fire departments in America. Three-fourths of them are small operations staffed by volunteers. But as communities grow — along with demands for more services, more training, higher professional standards and so on — hundreds of departments have turned to paid firefighters or some combination of volunteer and compensated staff. According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs' 2005 "Red Ribbon Report," a document that became a touchstone for the changes that Joel Janov wanted to make in Evergreen, the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has declined by 10 percent in the past two decades.

Evergreen Fire/Rescue began as a hardy squad of volunteers established in 1948 to serve a rustic mountain town of 500 residents. Since then, Evergreen has grown into a burgeoning community of 40,000, and EFR has swelled to an organization encompassing close to ninety volunteers, 33 full-time paid staffers (including shifts of four paramedics), a dozen part-timers, eight stations, 43 pieces of fire-and-rescue apparatus and an annual budget pushing $4 million.

The fire district covers 125 square miles of rugged country southwest of Denver, and it's difficult to imagine how it could be covered without volunteers. More than half of the service area has no hydrants, and even supposedly minor fires can require an unusual number of bodies and apparatus, including pumpers and tankers. Under a volunteer-based neighborhood-response system, firefighters often come from their homes rather than a station miles away. Fortunately, the operation has never lacked for qualified volunteers, including a number of local residents who also commute to jobs as paid firefighters in metro Denver when they're not responding to emergencies next door.

Traditionally, the volunteers elected their own chief. The chief would select the officers he wanted to serve in key positions, whose qualifications would be reviewed by a board of representatives elected by the volunteers, and the officers would then be affirmed by a popular vote of the membership. The chief would also go to the publicly elected fire-district board to seek whatever funds were necessary for new equipment. Department veterans acknowledge that as the paid side of the operation grew in recent years, the system was getting unwieldy, but few saw the need for any drastic overhaul.

"A problem was created to further a cause," says Jim Pidcock, a former assistant chief and ally of Neppell who resigned two months ago. "I didn't see what the hurry was to change things. Did the community decide? Are there justifiable numbers to show it needs to change?"

Yet most volunteers recognized that the operation had to be modernized to some degree. When Janov ran for the position of volunteer chief four years ago, he issued a "prospectus" declaring that the department had to be "open" to change, "the kind of change that keeps up with the times, technology, and our people." Janov had been with the department since 1996 and had also worked for four years as a paid firefighter for West Metro. Some of his colleagues describe him as bright and charismatic; others consider him abrasive and lacking in tact, but honest — sometimes to a fault. He was, in any case, eager to work hard at a job few people sought. In Evergreen, the office of volunteer chief often went to a firefighter who was already getting paid by another department, because nobody else had the time for it.

Pledging to improve the volunteers' relationship with the district board and its own leadership, Janov became the volunteer chief in 2004 and was re-elected in 2005. He embarked on a months-long study of the department, assembling an Organizational Effectiveness Team (OET) that met regularly with an outside consulting firm to discuss long-smoldering problems with its management structure.

There was plenty to discuss. The volunteer chief had no direct control over Evergreen Fire/Rescue's emergency medical services, even though EMS was involved in answering most calls. A paid district administrator supervised EMS and several other divisions, and each division had its own set of not-always compatible rules and procedures; the administrator and Janov were known to butt heads over various issues. In fact, the volunteer chief had control over only 11 percent of the budget of the organization he supposedly led.

The more the OET team studied the issue, the more inescapable the conclusion became: What this two-headed monster needed was a single leader, a paid chief overseeing both paid staff and volunteers. It was a logical transition to make, but not everyone was prepared to accept it. A paid chief had been tried before, in the late 1980s, without any particular success. When he campaigned to become the volunteer chief, Janov himself had expressed skepticism about a paid leader: "The volunteer system is essential to providing the high level of service the citizens of Evergreen have come to expect," he wrote in one campaign tract. "I believe it would take significant changes in the [department] and/or the community to justify this idea."

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