Both of Littleton’s fire partners say they’re confident in Littleton Fire Rescue’s ability to serve the public, despite some internal chaos that led to the Littleton Firefighters Association’s vote of no confidence in Chief John Mullin last month.
“We are confident the firefighters, paramedics and staff of Littleton Fire Rescue continue to provide excellent fire and emergency services to the people of Highlands Ranch,” Sherry Eppers, spokesperson for the Highlands Ranch Metro District, said in a written statement. “The metro district board of directors is also confident that Littleton City Manager Michael Penny will take actions as appropriate to ensure the fire department receives excellent leadership. The metro district board and staff will closely monitor the situation as it evolves.”
David Oppenheim, president of the Littleton Fire Protection Board, said it’s premature to comment, but the partnership is a strong and positive one.
“Our firefighters are competent, well trained and very capable of providing fire safety and rescue services to the community, and the association’s resolution should in no way lessen the confidence the community has in Littleton Fire Rescue,” he said.
That’s the one thing everyone seems to agree on.
“Littleton Fire Rescue continues to be a proud fire department offering great service,” said Mullin. “We get no customer complaints. I continue to receive cards and notes from our satisfied customers saying thanks for a great job.”
Joel Heinemann, president of LFA, agrees the firefighters are doing a great job, but he worries that could be at risk if something doesn’t change.
“The issues we have with morale are a result of the dysfunctional structure that we operate within,” he said.
It’s the association’s position that the only real fix would be to bring the three partners together under one umbrella, whether as their own entity or as a merger with another agency. South Metro Fire District is currently studying the feasibility of bringing them into its fold.
“Littleton is not as stable a fire department as other traditional fire departments,” said Heinemann, because most of its service area is outside of the city proper. HRMD and LFPD are both substantially larger in area and population, he notes, so the smallest entity is governing the larger ones.
Mullin said he wants to see the results of the South Metro study before recommending a way forward.
“I love Littleton Fire Rescue,” he said. “But I believe that there are some aspects that we could cooperate more on.”
Mullin said he’s working on improving his relationship with staff, keeping them informed of decisions and the rationale behind them, holding more face-to-face meetings and sending minutes to the whole department. He’s also sending all 39 supervisors to Blue Card training, designed to clarify the chain of command and improve radio traffic, among other things.
“This training and certification program produces incident commanders that make better decisions that will potentially eliminate the lethal and/or costly mistakes that cause injury, death and unnecessary fire losses in the local response area,” according to the program’s website.
Mullin explained it’s a regional effort with West Metro and South Metro fire districts, so everyone will be talking the same talk during emergencies. However, the 50 hours of training will require taking one engine out of service for the duration. Mullin said past training meant down time for two engines and one ambulance, so this is an improvement.
Heinemann thinks Blue Card will be a good thing, but he is concerned that until the whole department is trained, not just the supervisors, it could create confusion.
“In general concept, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Anything to improve communication is a step in the right direction.”
Another particular concern is whether there are enough medics on staff. There are 132 firefighters in the department, 53 of whom are medics. Mullin explained that there is one medic on every vehicle, and two vehicles at every scene.
“We’re looking to get more resources, as 70 percent of our calls are medical,” he said.
In February, Mullin interviewed 70 applicants, including 50 medics. Of the seven he hired, just one is a medic. They are in the academy now and should start in July. Mullin said that during the next go-round, in June, he will only interview medics, and will widen the pool to applicants who score at least 70 percent on the standard test instead of 85 percent as was required in the past.
Asked whether that was a lowering of standards, Mullin replied: “Not a chance. We take great pride in hiring great people, and that will not change.”
Mullin has indicated in the past that he might retire soon, but he didn’t directly answer the question this time.
“We have enacted things I believe will bring improvements in communication among command and employees, and I’m looking forward to seeing that success,” he said.
Heinemann said the association has its doubts.
“We’ve done what we need to do in order to bring this to the attention of his bosses, so the ball is in their court,” he said. “That’s all we can do. We don’t have the ability to hire or fire the chief. We’ll continue to do our jobs with the same dedication and pride as in the past, but we’re just looking for some help to make sure our needs are met.”