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Springs' new chief sizes up challenges related to wildfire, manpower, safety

Into the fire



After a four-month national search for a new fire chief, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach hand-picked someone who didn't even apply, from just 40 miles south.

Christopher Riley, currently Pueblo's fire chief, is slated to be confirmed by Springs City Council on Aug. 13 and to start work here Sept. 9. He follows Rich Brown, who retired in April but remains on the payroll as a consultant through December.

Riley, 52, says he was happy in Pueblo, but accepted the Springs' offer after being contacted by Bach's administration.

The 32-year fire service veteran, who will be paid $145,000, will take on a different world here. Not only does the Springs cover a geographic area five times the size of Pueblo, but it has about four times the population (about 400,000), about three times the fire employees (427 authorized strength), and twice the number of fire stations (20, soon to be 21).

Getting acquainted

Having spent most of his career in California, which is notorious for wildland fires, Riley knows the extensive and hazardous wildland-urban interface in the Springs is a huge concern.

During 25 years with three West Coast departments — Costa Mesa for 17 years, Garden Grove for seven, and a year at South Pasadena — he became certified as a wildland strike team leader (commander of five engines) and division group supervisor. He worked the Old Fire that burned about 91,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains in 2003, destroying 993 homes and killing six people.

While Riley says he'll need to get up to speed on many issues locally, he names four areas on which he'll likely focus regarding wildfires: homeowner mitigation to create firebreaks, evacuation plans, collaboration with neighboring agencies, and firefighter training.

"I want to ensure the command officers down to the firefighters have the best training that's available," he says. "I'm a big advocate of, 'Let's learn from a tragedy.'"

Of course, firefighters deal with potential tragedies even when it's not wildfire season, and often while answering emergency calls for service. At present, American Medical Response is the emergency provider throughout the region, but Bach has announced the city will pull out of the regional Emergency Services Agency and negotiate a separate deal with a provider. City officials have said they want to extract $2.5 million from AMR, payback for firefighters' response to medical calls. Up to now, AMR hasn't paid governments here for firefighter responses.

In Pueblo, AMR pays the city roughly $100,000 a year, Riley says. "That's based on the estimation of how many times a month we have to have a firefighter and crew in an ambulance to the hospital where one person in the back of the ambulance can't handle a critical patient," he explains.

"I'm aware there's an RFP [request for proposals for ambulance service], and that's something I'm going to have to tackle, is the EMS transport piece," he says. "I don't have enough information on that to give you an informed answer."

Three vs. four

Another contentious issue that could arise is whether to keep four firefighters per apparatus, or to downsize to three.

Riley sounds well aware of research, including a 2010 study by the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that has found larger crews more effective than smaller crews. Specifically, the NIST study found that four-person crews performed a series of tasks, from setting up ladders to delivering water to the fire, 25 percent faster than three-person crews.

"That's a science," Riley says. "The faster the tasks get done, the quicker you get to victims. When you have three versus four, it's like playing a football game with one less player."

Riley inherited a policy of three-person crews in Pueblo, but two years ago was able to get the airport's fire station increased to four firefighters, he says. "With staffing in general," he adds, "I've got no preconceived ideas of reducing staffing or anything like that. I need to look at the staffing model in depth and talk to members of the command staff and the labor leaders."

He says he plans to repeat his labor and management initiative created in Pueblo that set up a framework for problem-solving. "I have a very collaborative approach to being fire chief," he says. "Maybe there are some creative ways we could make the delivery even more efficient. I put the highest premiums on firefighter safety, which equates to community safety."

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3 in Pueblo didn't respond to an e-mail or phone call. But Local 5's president Jeremy Kroto in Colorado Springs stresses via e-mail that four firefighters per apparatus is the "minimum required to safely and effectively respond to the needs of our community."

As for Riley himself, whom Local 5 members did not meet before his nomination, Kroto says: "We're confident, based on conversations we've already had, as well as reports from the leadership of Local 3 in Pueblo, that Chief Chris Riley was not appointed as Chief of the CSFD to reduce staffing on apparatus. ... We've every reason to believe that Chief Riley's appointment as our next Fire Chief will enhance and improve our service delivery."

Among Riley's first tasks will be to find a replacement for Deputy Chief Tommy Smith, who is serving as interim chief and who has accepted the fire chief job in Redmond, Wash., after 22 years with Springs Fire.

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