Changes could include combined GJ-Clifton fire station in Pear Park

The Grand Junction Fire Department working at a training fire on the south end of 9th Street in May 2012.

What if the 11 fire departments in Mesa County could coordinate buying equipment? What if they offered training sessions inviting firefighters from all departments? What if two or three neighboring departments joined up to staff one fire station, increasing their reach and reducing personnel?

That’s the exercise all of the county’s fire departments and districts are exploring in a current study.

Especially in economic hard times, the last thing fire departments want to do is duplicate services, Grand Junction Fire Chief Ken Watkins said.

He saw enough of that while working on the Front Range. In Westminster he could stand at the front of his fire station, look across the way and locate the backside of a station belonging to another fire department.

“It’s always good to have someone else take a look at you,” Watkins said about the Grand Valley study. “Sometimes you get so myopic. Good government is opening ourselves up to new ideas.”

Fire officials from departments around the valley have been meeting for more than a year to discuss ways of sharing services and working together, Watkins said. The goal is not so much to work toward consolidation, or creating one large entity that encompasses all 11 departments, but for all departments to become more efficient and save money.

Matrix Consulting is conducting the fire services study, the results of which will be released to the public at 7 p.m. Aug. 21 at the Clifton Fire Station, 3254 F Road. Part of the study includes feedback from residents, who have been asked questions about their understanding and satisfaction with their respective fire departments. So far, more than 700 individuals have responded to the survey.

One of the more pressing issues for Grand Junction’s and Clifton’s fire departments is responding to calls in the Pear Park area. With its large population base, coverage of the area is shared by both departments, whose fire stations are virtually equidistant from the Pear Park area.

The fact that no fire stations exist in Pear Park raises concerns about the time it takes to respond to an incident there, as well as fire officials’ ability to meet national standards for response times. The standard is for fire personnel to arrive on the scene within six minutes, 90 percent of the time. Grand Junction’s times are more than 10 minutes.

One idea is to construct a fire station in the Pear Park area that could possibly be staffed by firefighters from Clifton and Grand Junction. Clifton could provide ambulance service and Grand Junction could provide engine service, for example, Watkins said.

“We knew that it didn’t make any sense for us to go out there and build a station without talking to them first,” he said.

A new fire station in the Pear Park area is estimated to cost $3.2 million.

Indeed, the Clifton Fire Protection District is interested in ways to save money and be more efficient, Assistant Fire Chief Greg Martin said. He also sees the upsides and downsides to forming a fire authority or partnerships with other departments.

“If you merge any two or three or four companies, everybody has to get along,” he said. “That’s kind of tough sometimes. We are reaching out to Grand Junction (Fire Department) to see if there’s a way to work together.”

On the west side of the Grand Valley, Fire Chief Frank Cavaliere of the Lower Valley Fire District said the call volume for his area is up 30 percent compared to this time last year, while the district’s 2012 budget is 20 percent lower than last year.

Although the Lower Valley Fire District long ago outgrew its station, when and if revenues increase, the district wants to make sure it places a new station in the best possible location to serve the public, Cavaliere said. By working with other departments to possibly share in buying bulk equipment and sharing in training opportunities, the valley’s west end fire protection provider may be better able to accomplish some of those goals, Cavaliere said.

For example, the Grand Junction Fire Department recently took on 13 new recruits for whom it had to buy gear. The Lower Valley Fire District recently needed two sets of firefighting gear.

“What kind of system can we get and save some money,” Cavaliere said. “We’re constantly accessing services so we don’t get caught flat a couple years down the road.”

Farther to the east, the fire agencies of the Rifle Fire Protection District, Glenwood Springs Fire Department, Glenwood Springs Rural Fire Protection District and the Burning Mountains Fire Protection District, which encompasses Silt and New Castle, have been working for about a year on a plan to consolidate their departments. The results of a 2011 study showed that consolidating the departments would result in the most efficiencies. Burning Mountains and Rifle have since consolidated and been renamed Colorado River Fire Rescue.

Glenwood’s fire departments so far have not joined in the consolidation effort, as city officials are still discussing the option, Glenwood Springs Fire Department Acting Chief Gary Tillotson said.

A consolidation means there is a more formal mutual aid process for the formerly separate entities to answer calls in the expanded coverage area. It also includes an overall reduction or need for personnel, including having only one fire chief to lead the new fire authority.

Rifle Fire Chief Mike Morgan became the chief of Colorado River Fire Rescue. That transition means Tillotson, a 20-year veteran of his force, will take on a lesser role.

“These types of situations don’t come along very often when you have chiefs that step aside for the greater good,” Tillotson said. “That’s usually one of the largest challenges. Every fire chief wants to protect their turf.”

Other challenges in the consolidation process include how to fund new fire authorities. Fire departments typically are funded like a city department, largely through sales and use tax revenue, while fire protection districts traditionally are funded through property tax revenue. Both sources of money decline in times of economic flux. Consolidated departments work under a single board.

Glenwood Springs stands to be one of the larger benefactors of the consolidation process because of the additional firefighters the city could rely on in the case of a major emergency, Tillotson said. While having formerly separate entities sharing a coverage area makes financial sense, it marks a shift in long-held beliefs.

“It just kinds of breaks some historical thought processes that it’s our jurisdiction and we’ll take care of it,” Tillotson said.


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