County Commission Searches for Solutions to a More Efficient Fire Department

County Commission Searches for Solutions to a More Efficient Fire Department

The Sweetwater County Fire Department responding to the Bender Fire in September 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike Bournazian

SWEETWATER COUNTY — The Sweetwater County Commission will be taking a look at the Sweetwater County Fire Department to see if the department can run more efficiently.

During the December 7 Commission meeting, Commissioners Mary Thoman and Roy Lloyd were reluctant to approve the hiring of two engine bosses for the fire department, stating they needed to start looking at how much money is going toward the department.

The engine bosses left for higher paying jobs, Sweetwater County HR Director Garry McLean said. He added that these positions are higher skilled positions, as they supervise crews on fires. Restaffing these positions in the middle of a fire season is not ideal, McLean said. Now that fire season is over, it is the appropriate time to restaff.

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Commissioner Lloyd questioned whether the department needed to be as big as it is to cover the amount of land it does.

“Do we need this large of a department to cover these needs?” Lloyd asked.

He added that statutorily, the county may be providing more than they are required to provide to the fire department.

Sweetwater County Fire Warden Mike Bournazian said the department needs to be able to respond seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and that they sometimes have overlapping fires. He also noted that the other fire departments in the county deal with Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which means about 80 percent of the other department’s calls are for EMS. Meanwhile, the Sweetwater County Fire Department responds to over 100 calls a year that are all fire related.

“You don’t need them until you need them,” Bournazian said of his firefighters.

Commissioner Thoman said her opinion wouldn’t be popular, but that before hiring new employees, they need to start looking at what the fire department really needs to run efficiently.

“We’ve got to start making hard decisions and really looking into some of the departments and things that we have. And I’m not saying we should eliminate this department, but I think that we need to have a special work session on the fire… to analyze this. Looking down the road, we’re having to figure out how to become more streamlined, more efficient, and I would just ask for that, and to hold off on hiring any more additional staff until we determine exactly how we want to move forward,” Thoman said.

Bournazian agrees with having a discussion regarding fire services in the county, and that he has always been available to have those discussions. However, he said he believes the full-time engine boss positions are necessary.

“I believe for retention and for sustainability, the two full-time positions would need to be the priority. I would entertain a discussion about the amount of seasonal staffing, but without offering a permanent position, we’re going to be a revolving door,” Bournazian said.

He added that with a smaller department like his, it is hard to bring engine bosses in anyway due to the same positions getting higher pay federally, and because there is no advancement past engine boss in his department unlike federal fire organizations.

While Commissioners Thoman and Lloyd wanted to pause hiring until they could have a workshop on fire servcies, Chairman Randy ‘Doc’ Wendling said the workshop would not happen in the next 30 days, and they could not leave the fire department without proper staffing.

“There’s going to be a transition period in which we’re still going to have to fight fires,” Wendling said. “We have no plan B at this point in time… I just don’t see how we can step back and take the risk of not providing public safety for our residents in the county.”

Bournazian said he has always believed there should be a discussion about having a collective fire service in the county. He added that he believes it would be more efficient, but he isn’t sure the other districts and departments will be as on board with that.

During the December 7 meeting, the Commission approved the hiring of the positions, with the understanding that they will have a workshop in January to discuss fire service in the county with Bournazian and the other fire chiefs in the county.

Bournazian Defends Efficiency of Fire Department

During the December 21 Commission meeting, the county HR Department made a request to be added to the agenda to seek approval to start advertising for seasonal firefighter positions. However, the Commission failed to second the motion to allow that item on the agenda.

During a discussion on county fire later on in the meeting, Bournazian clarified what the county fire department does and why he believes it is running efficiently.

“We are a wildland fire department, that is our primary purpose based upon the direction this board has given me,” Bournazian said.

However, he added that the county fire department also responds to other fires such as commercial, vehicle, residential, structure, and gas well fires. He said there are 10,600 square miles that make up Sweetwater County, and 60 percent of that is federal land. Of the land that makes up the county, he said there is 6,700 square miles of unincorporated lands within the county, which means it is not within the two primary fire districts or within city limits. That leaves those lands without fire protection, and those are the lands the Sweetwater County Fire Department is responsible for.

On that land, Bournazian said there are 400 residential structures including hotels, cabins, homes, and an additional 1,000 private structures, not including industries. Those range from anything from shops and garages, to barns, restaurants and small business.

He said he has run the department under the direction of the County Commission, and that he’s been doing it in an efficient way.

We’re doing a more efficient job now than when I was hired. We’re doing it with less personnel, we’re doing it with less equipment, we are doing it at a higher cost.”

– Sweetwater County Fire Warden Mike Bournazian

He added that his budget has not increased, and instead his budget has declined over the last three years. He said his budget to run the fire department is $700,000, and he annually returns $100,000 of that back to the county.

Therefore, he questioned the reason the county fire department was being scrutinized now.

“At the end, the cost to the county taxpayer for a county fire department that covers 6,700 square miles is roughly $600,000. So if it’s not a question of a shortfall or budget, is it a question of trust? Has something changed in this board that as a department head that was hired here, I’m no longer trusted to do my job to the best interest of this board and to the taxpayer?” Bournazian asked.

Commissioner Lloyd said it’s not a question of trust, but rather simply evaluating the process to ensure it’s being done in the most efficient way. Commission Thoman added that she wanted to hold off on hiring seasonal staff until they could get a committee together and talk about how to most efficiently run the fire department.

“It’s just part of being responsible and getting the commission to start looking way out ahead,” Thoman said.

Chairman Wendling said that though he agrees they should get a committee together, he had concerns about holding off for too long on hiring.

“I agree with your concept, I just struggle with your limitations of time where fires are going to show up and we don’t have a plan,” Wendling said.

Bournazian said he just wants to get advertisements out for seasonal staff, but is not asking to hire anyone yet. He will have to get on the agenda for a future meeting to make a request to start advertising.

In the meantime, Commissioner Thoman will head the committee that will begin discussing paths forward for the fire department. In January, more discussions will take place in which they will search for solutions for a more efficient county fire department.

“We may find out this is the best way to go and if that’s the best way to go then we did our due diligence, we did our job,” Commissioner Lloyd said.