North Summit Fire District chief reflects on a year of change
Ben Nielson was hired as the first full-time head of the East Side fire department in the wake of controversy last year
North Summit Fire District Chief Ben Nielson still remembers his first day walking into the fire station on Center Street in Coalville. The building had seemingly been neglected for around 30 years with its foundational cracks and malfunctioning equipment, but Nielson was committed to leading the Fire District into its next era.
The date was March 28, 2022 – around six weeks after the East Side fire department was put in the hot seat.
Nielson was hired as the first full-time chief amid a turbulent time for the Fire District. Summit County last February accused volunteer firefighters of dereliction of duty, leading the Park City Fire District to take over services for several months until officials decided how the North Summit Fire District should operate moving forward.
It’s been a busy year for Nielson, and the rest of the Fire District, as the chief worked to rebuild its ranks and improve services amid high turnover, a tight budget and a looming stigma.
But things appear to be steadily improving.
“It took 30 years to get to this point so it will take longer than a year to fix,” Nielson said. “But what we’re doing is working.”
This week, two firefighters were posted at the Fire District station in Wanship. Nielson said it’s the first time in the district’s history the station will be staffed, and it needs significant maintenance.
He plans to use truth-in-taxation approved by the Summit County Council in December to help fund the repairs as well as hire reliable staff. The council increased the Fire District’s budget from around $500,000 to $2 million, which is on the low end of what’s actually needed, according to the fire chief.
The shift from the volunteer model to part- and full-time employment options has proved successful, too. Nielson said the Fire District recently hired three full-time firefighters as well as four captains. The application for volunteers has been open for one year with no takers, according to the chief.
The Coalville station currently requires at least four people in order to be fully staffed and the Wanship station houses two. Firefighters can work anywhere from 12- to 48-hour shifts.
“Once Wanship is stood up, we have a level of service that’s guaranteed,” Nielson said. “There’s a retention challenge because of misconceptions about the uncertainty of the district, but we’re working past that to show people we’re stable.”
Staff is consistently pulling shifts, but Nielson would like to hire at least seven more part-time firefighters as the total roster is under 30 people. More full-time staff will also be needed if the Fire District is to start operating its own ambulance service.
People living on the East Side have long asked for the Fire District to perform emergency medical services, but the department lacked the proper licensure until Nielson took the helm. He’s helped firefighters complete necessary training that’s allowed them to respond to medical calls since September.
Someday, it may help shift the responsibility from the Park City Fire District, which provides ambulances and EMTs, to in-house. Nielson is a staunch advocate of the change and expects it will help with recruitment and retention efforts. The County Council could resume the discussion sometime next month.
The East Side fire chief estimated less than one-quarter of the original volunteer staff stayed on with the district. Tyler Rowser, a newly named captain, is one of them.
Rowser has spent 22 years with the Fire District and previously worked as its public information officer. He said there’s been a huge change since Nielson became chief, from moving away from the volunteer model and having to be at the station rather than dispatching from home – both of which guarantee and improve firefighters’ response. Rowser also pointed to the training opportunities and new skills, such as emergency medical response, that allow firefighters to do more to help the community they’re serving.
Olivia Marble, a Park City Fire District EMT stationed in Coalville, agreed. She’s been working with the North Summit Fire team since she started around two and a half years ago and said things are different, but better, than before. Marble has enjoyed the consistent stream of people flowing in and out of the fire station and described a family feel among those working there.
Having started without any fire experience, Marble is now on her way to becoming a firefighter through mentorships and training. She enjoys the variety and new challenges that each day on the job brings, and said the team is always willing to lend a hand.
“If you don’t know who to call, call us,” Marble said.
While Nielson is proud of the transition, he recognized there are still challenges for the Fire District to overcome.
For example, there are concerns about the quality of the department’s buildings and firefighting apparatus as they operate on a “shoestring budget” with more issues piling up. It’s also likely that the Fire District will need to replace a fire engine soon. The fire chief has slowly been integrating better equipment, such as the purchase of a heart monitor valued at $35,000 for $1,000 from Davis County and improved gear like tanks and thermal imagers, but the materials aren’t exactly brand-new.
Despite that, the North Summit Fire District remains up to the task. And Nielson said services will continue to improve as the district does.
Santa Claus returns to the Park City Ice Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. for the annual Santa Skate! Don’t forget to bring your ski or bike helmet to wear while you’re on the ice. Complimentary skating and rentals.
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