Fire district board candidates answer questions

By Doc Watson

Special to the Herald Times

RBC | In an open forum lasting about 75 minutes, some 70 Meekerites gathered at Kilowatt Korner on Monday evening to hear six candidates for two seats on the Rio Blanco Fire Protection District board, voice their views.

After some opening remarks on procedure, moderator Kathleen Kelley introduced the candidates, in alphabetical order (click here for those bios), asking each one for a two-minute opening statement.

“I think the reason I made the decision to run was that it was just a natural progression of my career with the fire department,” Steve Allen said. “I just want to do what I can to maintain the quality we have.” He doesn’t have any “big issues,” rather he just wants to see some things through he started, such as the remodel of the fire station.

While Jennifer Bouzek has neither fire nor EMS experience, she voiced her great love for this community and emphasized her background in administration, writing grants, research, fund-raising and budgeting. “I think I have that piece of the puzzle that might be missing a little bit to get (the department) to the next step of growth,” she said.

In addition to his current position as emergency manager for Rio Blanco County, Ty Gates, has a background in budget and finance as well. “In my current role, my favorite part of my job is fire,” he said. “We just finished up our THIRA plan (Threat Hazard Identification Risk Analysis, a Homeland Security program), and wildfire is the number one hazard in our county.” Gates also said he enjoys building relationships with other agencies, a recurring theme throughout the evening.

While Stephanie Kobald also stated that she has no fire or EMS experience, she believes that is actually an advantage. “Every board needs a variety of perspectives and personalities, and I am kind of that outside voice to represent the community,” she said. “Being the director of the chamber (of commence), I work with the county and the town, I’m connect to our business owners and our residents, so I think that’s what I bring to the board.” She also added that she is on two other boards and is controlled by the chamber’s own board, so she is familiar with the process.

Because of his background in firefighting and other community service, Gardner Mendenhall stated, “I think it’s good once you are a firefighter that you move into the administrative part of it.” His desires are fiscal responsibility to the department and the taxpayers, as well as making sure we have good recruitment and continuity with other outside agencies.

Finally, Lonnie Todd Morris’ opening statement emphasized what he helped accomplish in his previous terms on the board. When a new firehouse was considered, the board at that time decided to keep it centralized in town for faster response, which in turn saved money. “When I was on the board, we upped the pension for the firefighters, which was a huge thing,” he added. He also is concerned that all our agencies—fire department, police department, sheriff’s office and BLM—“work together as one community, because we are.”

The forum then turned to questions from either people present or ones already submitted at the fire department office. One particularly significant question concerned what each candidate thought the current administration is doing well and where it could do better. (The order changed from alphabetical to seating order.)

Bouzek feels that response times, training and equipment are good, but there could be improvement in “working more as a team” with other agencies as well as our preparedness for Meeker’s growth.

Kobald sees a strong effort in the department’s seeing “where we were and what changes need to be made to improve,” but she also sees a need to improve interagency communication.

Gates observed that the current administration genuinely cares about the membership and the community and does the best it can to build teamwork and camaraderie within the department. He feels, however, that it could do better in understanding things associated with wildland fires, such as “cost share agreements.”

Allen praised the board for ongoing training and “top-notch equipment,” even compared to full-time departments. His major concern, however, which was another recurring theme, is “recruitment and retention; we need to recruit new people and retain the ones we have.”

Morris reiterated that need. “It’s been 35 years since I was on the fire department. I was on for seven years, and it was a dog fight to get on. Now you can’t get people on, and we’ve tried many things. Something has changed that.”

Mendenhall also added an example, “I think at one time we were trying to get into the high schools to teach an EMT class; I’d like to see us get back to that.”

The candidates were asked for ideas of how to motivate recruitment and retention. Kobald believes that it starts with educating the community with what the department does. Mendenhall noted that the new building has sleeping quarters for those who live several miles outside of town, which would appeal to those who would like to serve but are too far away. Bouzek added that social media is another powerful medium to get the word out.

Allen aimed his input at all of us, noting that while the board, and especially Fire Chief Terry Skidmore, have done a lot of things for recruitment, they can’t do it all. “It’s got to be the community,” he insists. “If each of us would just go to someone and say, ‘I want you to think about getting on the department,’ that would be huge. I had never thought about it myself until Doug Overton called me in 1992.” He also added that telling people about the pension program is a strong motivator.

Another key question addressed better cooperation with other agencies. “We just need to sit down and talk to each other and be transparent, instead of complaining about one another,” Allen said.

“We just need to check our egos at the door,” Gates said. “Yes, we all have our own jurisdiction and things like that . . . (but) I’m all for teamwork and everybody playing nice in the same sandbox, and if we do that we won’t care so much about those district lines.”

Kobald’s practical suggestion was each board member attending another agency’s board meeting to help understand “where they’re coming from” and how we can work together.

A few other questions were asked and answered, but this race seems to be mostly about what is best for our community, our cooperation and our commerce. We can all probably help in that with our vote.