How is the Bluffdale Fire Department doing under new leadership?

bluff valley • From individual recliners in the break room at Fire Station 92 in Bluffdale, firefighters on duty gather side-by-side in front of a small-axe-adorned television for a Tuesday lunchtime shift. Among them there is a familiarity of people working whole days and nights as a team.

That level of comfort remains undiminished—even in front of her new fire chief, Matt Evans. They laugh and joke about whether he’ll be the one paying for dinner that night. By the end of July, Evans was one of them, a part-time employee who worked extra shifts from his full-time job at the Sandy Fire Department.

After the retirement of his two predecessors, Evans took on one of the few full-time positions with the Bluffdale Fire Department. Coupled with this was the challenge of raising a public security force facing scrutiny, even scandal, over money matters that led to criminal charges being brought against a former boss.

Nearly two months into his appointment, Evans has a plan to improve the department, prioritizing safety measures for firefighters and speedy service for the city. Human resources and transparency are also on his list of topics to be addressed.

“My five-year goal is to make this department a full-time department,” Evans said, “as budget allows.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matt Evans, Bluffdale Fire Chief, at Bluffdale Fire Station 92, on September 20, 2022.

Evans has hired four new firefighters and promoted three battalion chiefs and one captain, who works full-time for the city in addition to his role as part-time emergency manager.

During Evans’ brief tenure at the helm, the firefighters received a 9% pay rise, taking entry-level wages to $15.17 an hour. Still, more increases are needed. A full-time first-year firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority earns $47,819 per year.

“It is currently very difficult to maintain our staff strength. And I think it’s probably hard for other fire departments too, but we’re part-time so it’s even harder,” he said. “Our pay is a little lower, so it’s harder to get people to come here.”

Most firefighters work 48 hours at a station in another city and then go to Bluffdale, where they work an additional 24 hours to meet their obligation of two shifts a month. It can be difficult to ensure all shifts are filled, but Evans is hoping better financial incentives will change that.

For example, those who want to work more now have access to a bonus program created by the new boss. If employees take a third shift, the department pays an hourly increase of $2; a fourth shift, she earns $4 more than her base wage.

With new equipment and the prospect of grants for more full-time managerial positions, the department expects to be better able to respond to emergencies.

Go forward

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bluffdale Fire Chief Matt Evans, center, with Chris Wood, left, and Gabe Gerber, on September 20, 2022 at Bluffdale Fire Station 92.

It’s been a long drudgery since 2020, when former Chief John Roberts resigned after three firefighters filed complaints about firefighters being paid for days they didn’t work, in addition to concerns about inadequate coverage, a lack of policies on COVID-19 19 and uncertain decisions in fire scenes.

After an investigation, the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office last month charged Roberts with misappropriating public funds and falsifying government records.

Since then, the department has transitioned its manual payroll system to a digital format. And from the firefighters’ perspective, there’s more consistency within their teams overall.

“It’s nice to have that connection,” said Lt. Dustin Moon, “because you know how the other works.”

Established crews are now assembled in the same shifts. That steady pace, Moon said, helps them anticipate their teammates’ movements at emergency scenes.

“It was a little more ruthless in the early days,” said Chris Wood, a captain. “So once that [teamwork] started, it felt better to be here.”

The scar of how the department was run in the past is fading. And in general, Wood said, morale is up.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bluffdale Firefighter Chris Wood at Bluffdale Fire Station 92 on September 20, 2022.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to deal with this thing that’s in our closet or in our past,” Wood said. “I will speak for myself. I mean it is what it is. That’s history. We’re moving on.”

However, challenges remain. Shifts are sometimes short of staff, and the time it takes to get equipment or funding approved can be frustrating.

“If you dial 911, something will appear. You don’t really know how it shows. You just know it shows up. We understand how this all works,” Wood said. “It seems easy to us. But sometimes it’s just not that easy to get the message across to the purse holders or the people who control that part of it.”

A new vision

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bluffdale Fire Station 92 on September 20, 2022.

The Bluffdale Fire Department began as a volunteer force. Roberts, the ex-boss, became his first full-time employee in 2012. Now the department has 85 employees and two stations.

Mayor Natalie Hall, who defeated Roberts in last year’s election, is pinning her hopes on sales taxes as the city grows to pay more full-time firefighters.

“Our goal is to continue to increase our funding for the fire department,” Hall said, “so eventually we can ensure that both stations are always fully staffed.”

Bluffdale has mutual aid agreements with the Unified Fire Authority and towns like Draper. If an emergency arises while the Bluffdale Fire Department is on another call, other cities will step in to cover it and vice versa.

Evans credits his immediate predecessor, former fire chief Warren James, with modernizing a lot of equipment, securing another engine and an ambulance. So Evans focuses on the next steps: promotions, higher pay, and better staffing.

After a turbulent period, Evans said the only way is up.

“We are all ready to do anything,” he said. “We have great paramedics. We have great captains and firefighters.”

Bluffdale just needs more of it.

Alix Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this; Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/09/23/how-small-utah-fire-department/ How is the Bluffdale Fire Department doing under new leadership?

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