It’s been six months since the North Summit Fire District hired its first full-time chief, and he’s readying for changes that will impact the fire services on the East Side for the foreseeable future.
Chief Ben Nielson arrived at a time when the North Summit Fire District was doused in controversy, and he has since strived to rebuild its ranks, boost morale and establish a vision for the department. But Nielson said the Fire District needs financial support to improve public safety and overall services on the East Side.
The Fire District held two open houses in Coalville last week to discuss inadequacies in operations, equipment and facilities, which do not meet local needs or national fire service standards, and possible solutions with the community. Nielson said he wants the department to be transparent and wants residents to be able to provide input about the topic.
The presentations highlighted fire crews’ response times, the current staffing model, the Fire District’s tax history and more.
East Side residents learned, for example, how the National Fire Protection Association’s standard response time for rural areas is 14 minutes. However, with only one station in Coalville, it can take the North Summit Fire District up to 30 minutes to arrive. Nielson suggests repositioning resources to stations in Wanship and Henefer to reduce wait times, but each location also needs significant repairs and maintenance. There are currently no staff or firefighting apparatus in either station.
The Fire District currently has a steady workforce and Nielson said the volunteer model is no longer sustainable. He advocated for paying the firefighters a reasonable wage to ensure stability in the ranks, enhanced training, such as emergency medical services certifications, and reduced turnover.
Under Nielson’s leadership, the Fire District upgraded its EMS designation. There are four people working at the station, two of whom are medical responders, but all of them are now able to assist with medical calls. The chief said it’s a “huge step” in improving response as around 85% of calls are not fire related. The Fire District still needs to obtain a patient transport licensure before it can offer its own medical services. The Park City Fire District currently provides emergency medical services on the East Side, but there are ongoing discussions about shifting the responsibility.
The Fire District has two firefighters on duty who can respond to a call within two minutes compared to the past, when they were responding from home, but Nielson said he would like to see the number increased to six. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires at least four firefighters at the scene before they can enter the structure. Nielson’s solution is to develop a combination department with both part-time and full-time staff. Ideally, they would be trained to respond to fires and medical calls, he said.
“That’s the bare bones minimum. We haven’t had that in the 20 years of the department’s history,” he said in an interview with The Park Record.
Some homeowners’ insurance policies are even being canceled or fire loss is being excluded because of the northern portion of the county’s Insurance Services Office fire rating, which is calculated based on the number of firefighters, training, equipment, water supply, and more. The highest rating is 1 and the lowest is 10. The Fire District’s service zone has a rating of 10.
Nielson said many residents shared the same frustrations about response times and firefighters’ familiarity with the community. He sympathized with them, saying he agrees with residents, but he needs additional revenue to fix the problems.
However, the chief said many people may be jaded because the Fire District was not properly managed in the past. He characterized it as in “disarray,” which may be why people are uncertain about the proposed changes, but he said it’s also why a tax increase is needed.
The Fire District hasn’t raised taxes in 15 years. Residents voted for a tax increase in 2007, which was to be implemented in 2008, but it never was, according to Nielson. The Fire District is considering a levy to raise the tax rate to .0014%. The owner of a primary residence valued at around $350,000 could pay around $200 more in 2023 under the proposal.
“We need something that’s sufficient. I’m not asking for anything luxurious,” he said. “We need a good balance to respond to emergencies and keep conditions safe for firemen.”
Nielson described feeling overall accepted by the East Side. He said having a full-time chief in place helps residents see the issues are being addressed and heading in the right direction – helping reduce any lingering animosity.
Earlier this year, county officials accused volunteer firefighters of “boycotting” shifts and suspended them, prompting the Park City Fire District to temporarily take over services in North Summit. East Side residents argued the discontent had been building since November, when the former fire chief was fired.
The Administrative Control Board, the governing body of the North Summit Fire District, held a special meeting on Monday to review the information discussed during the open houses. The group voted on a resolution notifying the Summit County Council of its intent to propose a tax increase above the certified amount. A public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 5.
A public hearing about the Fire District’s 2023 budget and recommended tax rate is set for early December.