Steamboat Springs Has More 911 Calls Than Ever, But Not More Firefighters
Before the call came, Chuck Cerasoli had poured his second cup of black coffee, finished settling into a leather armchair and taken a few deep breaths. He made it to the start of a training on pain management for the staff of the Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, where he works as deputy fire chief for a sprawling area that includes one of the state's largest ski resorts. He even had a chance to eat his breakfast — a rare feat.
Then the ping of an alarm echoed through the firehouse's halls and into the living room where he sat. Cerasoli knew as soon as he heard the four high-pitched beeps: the first emergency of the day had arrived.
"Training and meals," Cerasoli said, heading for the stairs in the blink of an eye. "That's when we get most of them."
He hoped, for now, this call would be the only one.
Like many fire departments in Colorado, the Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue is responsible for covering an ever-growing population. The amount of people living and working in its service area has ballooned from around 5,000 people in 1980 to more than 12,000 today — not including the thousands of tourists that flock to the ski slopes in the winter and, increasingly, during the summer to the Yampa River and downtown's many restaurants and shops.
That's led to a jump in the number of calls to the department each year. In 2005, the first year the department collected data after its conversion from an all-volunteer to a paid staff, it received 1,212 calls. Last year, it got 2,237. This year, it's on track to see its highest call volume ever.
In response, the city is asking voters to do something they haven't done in 40 years. In August, the city council voted to put a local 2-mill property tax question on the November ballot. If passed, it would increase the fire department's budget by an estimated $1.5 million per year. It would also be the first time the city has collected property taxes since 1979.
The bump, staff say, would secure two additional firefighters per shift and help offset other operating costs.
On top of the growth in total call volume, another trend in the data has alarmed both the department's staff and Steamboat's city council: concurrent calls. Increasingly, two or three calls will come into the fire department at once, meaning multiple emergencies are happening simultaneously. So, if firefighters and paramedics are busy handling one call, they might not be able to respond adequately to another.
For Cerasoli, that's unacceptable.
"That's what keeps the chief and I up at night," he said. "Our big concerns are the community's welfare and our staff."
Inside the firehouse garage, Cerasoli and three other firefighters climbed in the fire engine. Another two jumped in an ambulance. The others stayed behind as backup.
In less than a minute, they were speeding down S. Lincoln Ave towards a condo near the Steamboat Resort. The fire engine's siren droned on.
Buckled into his seat, paramedic Tony DeRisio wondered what was waiting for them.
"We're going up to a person who has fallen," he said. "Unknown if they're injured or not."
Right now, there simply isn't room in the city's budget to hire more firefighters and paramedics. And the reason why, at least partially, can be traced back to the 1970s.
Tourism in Steamboat was growing, as was the town's year-round population. So, to keep up with infrastructure improvements around town, the city council proposed an idea: eliminate property taxes for a few years in favor of raising the local sales tax.
That way, tourists — and not just locals — would pay for new buses, roads and essential services like fire and police. Voters passed the measure in 1978.
Paula Black had just moved to Steamboat Springs. She would eventually become a longtime city councilwoman, but at the time she was just a resident.
"I don't know that it flew under the radar as much as people felt that that made sense," Black said.
And for a few years, the higher sales tax did exactly what it was supposed to do. But in 1981, a recession hit. Tourism revenues plummeted and city-supported housing and other construction came to a halt.
"Therefore there just wasn't the will to initiate a property tax when the community was already suffering," Black said.
Even when she got elected in 1988, the question of whether to reinstate the property tax was constantly on the table. In public hearings, community members would repeatedly show up to protest the idea of reinstating a property tax for city services, she said.
Black even supported an effort to pass a variation, a real estate transfer tax, in the early 90s. But that idea "died on the vine," she said.
Even after she left the council in 2000, her successors would try — and fail — multiple times to reinstate a property tax.
Robin Crosson, a current member of city council, said it wasn't until the last few years where she felt the community was ready to reinstate it.
"We finally have people in our community that are saying we can't go on with sales tax only. They see the volatility in it with it potentially going up and down," she said. "(The property tax) doesn't have to be the only thing we do, but we have to move towards something that's a little bit more sustainable, actually quite a bit more sustainable."
The second call
The fire engine fell silent as it pulled in the condo's parking lot.
Cerasoli jumped out of the truck, into an elevator and up to level 2. At the end of the long hallway, he knocked on a brown door. Shortly after, a man answered.
"She's in the bedroom," he said.
Once inside, Cerasoli and the group kneeled over a woman on her back, unable to move due to intense pain. Joe Oakland, a paramedic, determined she'd have to go to the hospital.
Then, it happened. Cerasoli's radio chirped.
A natural gas detector had gone off at a home across town.
The standard response would be to send a fully staffed fire truck and ambulance, Cerasoli said. But the team already had their hands full.
"It doesn't sound like a life threat," he said. "So I'm okay with the other ambulance going to check it."
Cerasoli radioed for the two men back at the firehouse to assess the situation. As he walked back to the fire engine, he hoped it wasn't a serious leak.
"If a third call comes in, now we don't have anybody available," he said.
They worked like clockwork, lifting the woman in pain onto a stretcher. They rolled her down the hallway and back to the parking lot where the ambulance sat, waiting.
Ed MacArthur, a longtime resident and owner of a local excavation company, said he acknowledges the fire rescue's growing pains, but remains skeptical of the plan to raise Steamboat's property taxes.
He served on a special committee earlier this year made up of residents, which ultimately made the 2-mill recommendation to city council.
"I've heard that we're on a single leg stool from our funding concept for the whole time I've lived here," he said.
MacArthur said he's concerned the tax hike is more of a want than a real need. He pointed out that the department's response times are in the "upper 30%" of all districts in the state.
"I look at that and say, 'Where's the problem?'"
He also remembered a story he heard earlier this year, during a question and answer session with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.
"I said, 'Could you give me examples in the last year or two years, whatever it is, of where you were not able to respond in the timeframe you felt was necessary to accomplish the goal?'" he recalled asking. "And without hesitation, there was only one time that they could reflect back on."
It was last year. The department already had two calls out when someone had a seizure at Walmart. First responders couldn't get to the person in time, so the other shoppers had to load the person in a vehicle and drive them to the hospital.
"In my point of view, for us to increase our budget to accomplish that one person ... I look at it a little differently." he said. "How much do we want to spend on this?"
On the other hand, some residents think the 2-mill tax doesn't go far enough.
Joella West, another member of the committee, told the city council on Aug. 27 she was very concerned about the ballot question.
"It doesn't pay for what it needs to pay for," she said. "At some point you're going to be back telling our citizens we don't have enough money."
West said she expected to see leaders put forward a more comprehensive plan to address all of the fire department's shortfalls, including the costs of more personnel, new equipment and a new fire station.
"My feeling is that this is inadequate and is setting a precedent in terms of property tax," she said. "I think there is a very high risk for failure with this proposal."
Back at the firehouse, Cerasoli settled back into one of the living room's leather armchairs.
They had taken the woman in pain to the hospital for treatment and returned to their pain management training. The two firefighters who checked out the natural gas alarm were back too.
Chris Welch, one of the two who responded, said it was a false alarm.
"This gentleman was in his house staining a chair," he said. "And the stain — the fumes were pretty pungent and I think they just got in the gas detector and it mistook that as some sort of gas."
Sometimes concurrent 911 calls can be managed quickly. But, Welch said, he can't always assume that.
"My mindset has to be one of this is probably an emergency and it could be caused by two or three scenarios," he said. "And I have to prove that wrong."
Cerasoli said the increasing call volume is just one of the many growing pains his department is feeling. They pay their firefighters and paramedics less than what they can make along the Front Range. And there's a lack of affordable housing.
"So you have to find people that want to be here and are willing to sacrifice some wages and a higher cost of living as far as housing," he said. "That will make that sacrifice."
Solving that problem, he said, goes well beyond approving a property tax increase.
Colorado is growing, and that’s leading to all kinds of tension across our state. This week, as part of our ongoing “Growing Pains” series, we’re exploring how Steamboat Springs is meeting the challenge.