Jones: In defense of SCUF

I enjoyed reading Trena Eiden’s well-written and researched commentary on SCUF. It was very thought provoking and deserves discussion. There is no doubt that the county is spending a lot of money on the fire department. I was the mayor of Pinedale at the time the county commissioners took over all the fire departments across the county and made them one (Sublette County Unified Fire or SCUF) organization. I would like to take a few minutes to offer another perspective. I will discuss why SCUF was created and what happened as a result. I will also touch on the massive spending since the reorganization.

Prior to SCUF, the fire departments in the county were operated in a variety of ways. Some were funded by the towns with the help of the county. Others were funded exclusively by the county. Each department was to a large degree run independently. They did work together to help each other out when needed. However, independence was not without problems. When I took over as the mayor of Pinedale, the Pinedale Fire Department and its organization was very confusing to an outsider and far from operating at maximum efficiency. I was very supportive of combining all the departments and putting them under the control of the county and one paid full-time chief, Shad Cooper. I was proud of the fact that the county commissioners realized that town citizens and county citizens were all county taxpayers and equal citizens that deserve the best emergency services possible given our resources. The towns signed over ownership of all fire-related resources to the county and they took over the fire departments and called it SCUF. It should be noted when I saw the change coming, I joined the Pinedale Fire Battalion.

I am proud of the way my team at the Town of Pinedale and the other towns worked together to accomplish SCUF; it positively effects each citizen of Sublette County. When SCUF was created, an amazing thing happened. The tension between north and south county diminished greatly. The towns and the county put all Sublette County residents together as one and did the right thing for everyone. The results were impressive and lasting. Eiden stated that the prior five volunteer departments “worked very well.” I would say they did a great job with what they had. What they had was a bunch of great hardworking volunteers with old, mismatched equipment and tools. Some departments had good training and others not so much. Some of the smaller departments didn’t have the personnel to put on top-quality training scenarios.

What changed when SCUF started? Three things at first: Training, training, discipline, training and teamwork. I felt like I was back in Air Force pilot training. Cooper is a hard case, and he wants his people to know their job inside and out, and he does not put up with nonsense. He expected a lot and accepted what his volunteers gave him. In the beginning, he conducted most of the training himself. His stated objective was to make sure we were all competent and that we could go to any fire battalion in the county and fit in. He did this by making sure we all received the same training and by conducting large training scenarios with all the battalions together. This built a huge amount of confidence and trust among the firefighters from the north all the way to the south. One of the problems we discovered early on was that our equipment was not always compatible from department to department. If we were going to work as a team, we had to have compatible equipment. Unfortunately, that takes money and a lot of it. Cooper and his leadership team took care of that problem as money allowed. The results are not something you can put a dollar figure on. So what changed when SCUF started? I can assure everyone reading this that you are much safer because of it and our firefighters are more likely to go home in one piece after a call. These changes are important in keeping our citizens safe but they have a cost.

I have found that you are only as good as the people working with you. In general, people perform better if they have the proper tools, safe environment, excellent leadership and, most importantly, feel appreciated. This all takes money and, with a county the size of Sublette, a lot of it. One of the very expensive new trucks Eiden mentioned is the truck that replaced the truck I was running on the day of the large fire at Pinedale Lumber. My truck broke down (as it often did) and I was unable to supply water to the firefighters. Luckily, one of the trucks from another battalion was able to fill in and we were able to minimize the damage. Time is money in a fire. All our equipment was compatible and the truck switch was seamless. Everyone knew and trusted the new operator because we had trained together. This allowed a local business to stay in business and did not put our firefighters in a more dangerous position. That truck was an older, low-mileage truck that was prone to breakdowns. It was replaced a few years later when money was available. I know the firefighters are safer because of it and I am sure they appreciate knowing our community appreciates their dangerous work enough to replace an unreliable truck. What is that worth to a community? I do know this: Anything we can reasonably do to keep all our first responders safe should not be taken lightly. Without them this would be a very dangerous place to live.

Wages and full-time SCUF employees are some of Eiden’s concerns. Just like equipment takes someone to run it, a department with over 100 employees takes people to run it. Cooper is a department head just like many others in the county and they all put in a lot of time and deserve a fair wage for doing it. I believe his salary is in line with others that have his responsibility. When ML Baxley was called Cooper’s “helpmate,” I thought Eiden doesn’t know her. ML is one of those people that truly rides the brand. If you know a firefighter, you most likely know someone that hates paperwork. Trust me when I tell you she keeps that place running. She is one of those employees that you get once in a career. As to the other full-time and part-time employees, a reasonable discussion could be had with your county commissioners.

I would like to point out how our system works. If I am an Air Force general, I want planes. How many? As many as the factories can make. Congress will look at the finances and decide how many planes the Air Force will get. Not the general. Cooper is a firefighter, and he wants the best fire department he can get. He would be a poor leader if he didn’t ask for everything he can use to make his department the best it can be. It is up to the commissioners to decide what the fire department gets, not Cooper. When I was the mayor I never forgot what my job was. It was to keep everyone in Pinedale safe with the resources I had available. Everything else was extra. The commissioners have the same responsibility to keep us all safe. I would argue it starts with supporting our first responders. There are almost always reasons behind decisions. I would kindly ask that everyone sit down and talk to the decision makers before attacking a group of hardworking men and women that risk their lives every time that pager goes off and they go to help or save someone in dire need. I’m sure Eiden did not mean to attack everyone on the fire department when she went after Cooper but, indirectly, she did. I am not even on the fire department anymore but was deeply offended.