New policy would allow Summit County employees to become wildland firefighters
One of the biggest environmental threats that faces Summit County is wildfire, says Ken Smith, fire chief of the North Summit Fire District. And the area that he says is most prone to that risk is in the eastern end of the county.
The fire districts that serve North and South Summit are volunteer based. However, North Summit Fire District pays its members a small stipend and South Summit Fire District members will start receiving a stipend in 2020.
But, since members are often pulled away from their full-time jobs, it can take more time for them to respond to incidents.
County officials recently created a new policy that would allow county employees to train to become reserve wildland firefighters who could respond to a fire on the eastern end of the county if needed. Both Smith and Park City Fire District Chief Paul Hewitt said they support the policy. However, Hewitt said he would not likely tap the pool of county employees because he has an experienced roster, a county staff report states.
The policy states that up to 10 employees will be allowed to be trained on how to fight wildland fires. Each employee would need their department head or an elected official’s approval to participate, with no more than two employees from the same department being allowed to qualify.
“Many county employees are based out of the North Summit area and this could be a resource for North or South Summit if they needed it,” said Brian Bellamy, the county’s human resource director. “We picked 10 so it wouldn’t strip the county of all of its employees.”
Any employee that wants to participate in the program would need to complete certification classes and pass a physical agility test to become a Type 2 wildland firefighter. The policy would also require them to be the first released from any wildfire fighting activity.
Smith said county employees would likely be completing duties such as spraying water on brush or dragging fire hoses and they would be paired with a more experienced firefighter. After their first year, though, he said the employees could complete more training to learn how to drive engines and take on more responsibilities.
“When we get a four- or five-day incident, we could use all the help we could get,” Smith said.
Summit County, like most of the state, experienced an active 2018 fire season, with hundreds of acres burning from natural and human-caused blazes. Some of the larger blazes charred nearly 300 acres in Tollgate Canyon at the end of July and 536 acres in Echo Canyon along Interstate 80 in September. Firefighters were on scene for days, working on suppression efforts.
Elected officials questioned whether the employees would be allowed to receive workers’ compensation if they were injured and if they would get overtime pay for helping on a fire after normal work hours. The policy was not approved at a County Council meeting on Wednesday. County Manager Tom Fisher will have the final authority to approve the policy.
County Council Chair Roger Armstrong said he supports the policy as long as the employees won’t be used for anything larger than a brush fire. He mentioned the Rockport Fire in 2013, which forced the evacuations of hundreds of people and burned nearly 2,000 acres. Personnel from several agencies, including many out of state, assisted in the suppression efforts.
“Ken said they just need some extra manpower to come in because they are being challenged more and more with finding people that have the time and ability to volunteer,” he said. “I think it’s OK since it is entirely voluntary. They (employees) will have to have the training and the ability to volunteer, as well as the department head’s approval.”
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