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Security Fire: Ready to build new fire station, request mill increase

 

Last updated 8/18/2021 at 11:14am

Karin Hill

The site of Security Fire Department's new Station No. 4 is located off of Mesa Ridge Parkway to the east of Powers Boulevard near The Glen.

After circulating letters, fliers and surveys to residents over the last few months, Security Fire Department has decided to place a mill levy increase on the November ballot – but at a lower rate than initially suggested.

SFD will ask residents in the fire protection district to approve a 6.4-mill increase, the district's first such request in over a decade. Chief David Girardin estimates that, if approved, the additional mills would generate $1.5 million a year. The additional mills would equate to $3.81 per month – or $45.76 a year – for $100,000 of a home's value.

Officials cite substantial population growth leading to slower response times, low pay for emergency personnel resulting in retention problems, and sizable future equipment needs as some of the major issues they hope additional funding will address.

Although a new Station 4 at The Glen neighborhood is accounted for in the budget already, staffing for it is not. And department leaders expect they'll need a Station 5 in the Lorson Ranch area sooner rather than later, but there is no funding for that at all yet.

Other challenges include overtime costs, healthcare, training, fuel and oil, and other supplies – most of which have gotten more expensive recently.

"The SFD tries to live within our means," SFD Board President Pete Smith said during a May 25 townhall meeting. "Right now we have no outstanding debt. We have increased wages once in the past five years, and it was a 3-percent raise. We try to set aside funds to buy equipment and apparatus as best we can. We have one of the lowest mill levies in the county, especially compared to the other districts that are close to us. And then we use volunteers the best we can to help fill in when we need them. Another thing to note is that all our volunteers are fully trained firefighters, and most are EMTs."

Smith said that SFD firefighters are paid about 40 percent less than the other fire departments in the area. This results in many firefighters staying on only a short time before leaving for better pay elsewhere. If nothing changes, funds are available to make at most 2-percent pay increases.

"That still keeps us well below the other fire districts," Smith said. "Right now we lose about nine firefighters per year, and most of them go to different places because of the pay."

If the 6.4 mills are approved, SFD plans to give its employees raises of about 8 percent per year over the next few years to get them up to par.

SFD has about 42 paid staff members and 25 volunteers.

The district has experienced major growth in recent years and currently experiences about three times as many calls as the other fire departments in the county, officials said.

"Right now the Security Fire Department covers 55 square miles; that is all in unincorporated El Paso County," Smith said. "The service population has increased by 20 percent in the last 10 years. Currently we have about 55,000 residents. That's projected to increase by 15-25 percent by the year 2025, which equate to almost 10,000 more residents."

Response times are slower across the board at all three stations, which are located at 400 Security Blvd. (Station 1), 7420 Metropolitan St. (Station 2), and 5110 Bradley Road (Station 3).

"Because we run so many medical calls, we actually run our own ambulance service," Smith said. "Several years ago, we fired the county ambulance service that was taking up to 45 minutes to get to an emergency call. And now we respond much quicker to emergency medical service calls with our ambulances."

The biggest problem if the proposal doesn't pass, officials say, is that response times will continue to grow longer.

"Fires double every five minutes," Smith noted.

According to a flier promoting the proposal, SFD's response times for fires have gone from just over 1 minute at Station 1 to 5 minutes, 50 seconds between 2018 and 2020. A national benchmark for fire response is 4 minutes. For Station 2, it went from 1 minute, 29 seconds to a full 9 minutes; and for Station 3, from 1 minute, 4 seconds to 6 minutes, 38 seconds.

SFD ambulances experienced similar upticks in response times, and medical services account for 71 percent of SFD's calls.

Expensive equipment is becoming outdated and needs to be replaced, officials said. That includes two pumper trucks at around $850,000 each, and $4,000 radios that each firefighter on a call must have. A new ladder truck is also on the horizon, with a $1.5 million price tag. Currently, the capital budget to replace equipment is around $100,000 annually.

The department did recently purchase a heavy rescue truck to replace an engine. It also bought a new wildland truck that can attend to structure fires but also wildland fires locally and nationally. SFD crews periodically get deployed to those fire around the country, and the department gets reimbursed for that.

"In fact, the reimbursements have paid for that truck," Smith said, adding SFD only deploys on a national basis if requested, and if manpower is available.

Girardin noted that SFD currently enjoys an ISO rating of 3. On a scale of 1-10, 1 is the best and 10 is the worst. ISO ratings can have a significant impact on homeowner's insurance. Distance from fire stations to homes is one major component of a rating. Girardin said the planned Station 4 is already factored into the current rating. He said if equipment becomes outdated and not replaced, that could negatively impact the area's rating.

A common question asked by residents regarding the mill levy proposal is why new housing developments aren't "paying their own way," or rather paying extra amounts to compensate SFD for the burden they would put on the fire district and existing resident. Although SFD can ask developers to donate land for stations – and they sometimes do – under state law the district cannot charge different rates to different parts of the district.

The plan initially called for a 7.9-mill increase, but officials said their proposal went public at the same time El Paso County sent out letters to property owners notifying them of increases in assessed property values. Organizers of the mill proposal say they were caught off guard by the increased assessments, which will lead to higher property taxes. That development is a major reason directors voted to decrease the proposal to 6.4 mills.

"It went down because the values went up," Girardin said. "We want to be good stewards of our community and not ask for more than we need."

Comparing mill levy rates to similar departments in the area, SFD's are lowest. The current rate is 10.002. The most recent increase of 5 mills was in 2010. Other districts, including Falcon, Black Forest, Cimarron Hills and Tri-Lakes Monument, range from 14.886 to 18.4 mills currently.

Chief Girardin said he expects there will be another public townhall on the issue before the election, likely in October. As always, the public is welcome to attend monthly board meetings the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in Station 1. Also, the full recording of the May 25 webinar is posted online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTSgefWGWSY.

In the meantime, officials expect to break ground on Station 4 along Mesa Ridge Parkway to the east of Powers Boulevard in the next few weeks. Girardin said he had hoped that would have taken place months ago, but there were numerous delays getting the plans through the county approval process.

In addition to fire and medical response, the department also conducts community CPR classes, complimentary smoke detector checks and replacements, blood pressure checks, fire prevention programs, station tours, and other services including an annual barbeque and the July 4th pancake breakfast. For more information on SFD, visit securityfiredept.org.

 

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