Warden defends county fire department staffing
December 23, 2021
As the Board of County Commissioners continues to look for ways to save revenue and make county services more efficient, Commissioners Roy Lloyd and Mary Thoman have turned their attention to the Sweetwater County Fire Department, questioning if it can be reevaluated to ensure it is functioning as efficiently as possible.
Fire Warden Mike Bournazian spoke at this week’s commissioner meeting, defending the need for the fire department and his work to continually make it more efficient over the past several years.
“We are a wildland fire department, that is our primary purpose,” Bournazian said, but he added the county fire department also regularly responds to other types of fires, including structural, vehicle and residential fires and more. Bournazian said he brought three binders with photos going back 30 years to the meeting with him to visually show all the work county fire has done.
Of the 10,600 square miles that make up Sweetwater County, 6,700 square miles are unincorporated lands which are not covered by other established fire districts and departments, Bournazian explained. The Sweetwater County Fire Department responds to fires in these lands, which are primarily wildland fires, but the unincorporated lands also include 400 residents, 1,000 private structures, and oil and gas structures and industries that bring revenue to Sweetwater County.
Bournazian explained the county fire department works with all the other fire departments and agencies in the county, as well as communicating with Carbon, Fremont, Sublette, Lincoln, and Uinta Counties and several counties in Utah.
“There is no other fire department in the state that has this responsibility or communication,” he said.
There were discussions among the county commissioners about the need for the county fire department six years ago, and the decision was made to keep and rebuild the department, according to Bournazian, which is why he was hired. Since then he said he has kept to his plan to improve the department.
“We’re doing a more efficient job now than when I was hired,” he said. “We’re doing it with less personnel. We’re doing it with less equipment.”
The equipment purchased by the county fire department doesn’t increase the fleet, according to Bournazian, it only replaces inadequate or obsolete equipment.
“I’ve reduced my budget three years consecutively,” Bournazian said, adding he believes he can reduce the budget up to another $50,000 in the coming year by changing the structure of seasonal hiring.
“We run, as far as I am concerned, a professional fire department that’s efficient and cost-effective at the best and most adequate staffing level we can,” he said.
Bournazian also said he does believe there could be an opportunity down the road for local fire organizations which are currently separate to come together.
“I support the discussion of how to improve the fire service in Sweetwater County as a whole, but not at the cost of our department until we know our options and we can move forward,” he said. “Because we do a good job. We do a cost-effective job.”
Thoman and Lloyd expressed their continued desire to discuss how to reach a long-term solution, recommending putting together a committee with local fire chiefs to look at options.
Thoman said she wanted to put a hold on allowing the county fire department to hire anyone new until at least January so they would have time to get a committee together. Chairman Randy Wendling questioned whether any meaningful discussions could happen before January, and Lloyd added he didn’t want decisions to be made too quickly. Bournazian clarified that he isn’t asking to hire anyone immediately, just to post advertisements for available seasonal positions.
He explained the fire department has to compete with other fire agencies for seasonal workers, including federal agencies which offer better benefits, and the county department typically doesn’t hire until around February.
During the meeting, Wendling cautioned against making decisions regarding public safety services, such as fire services, that could leave the county without those services.
Lloyd agreed he doesn’t want to risk public safety, but added he wants to reevaluate the way fire services are done.
“The question is, is there a different way to do it?” Lloyd said. “I’d like to set a committee, take a look, and if we find out this is the best way we do it, we move forward. If not, we take a look at those recommendations.”
Wendling asked Thoman and Lloyd if they would be willing to head a committee to begin discussions about fire service, and asked Thoman if she would chair it, since Lloyd had shown reluctance to take on more projects the last time a committee was brought up.
“If that’s what it takes,” Thoman replied. Lloyd expressed his willingness to help.