Bluffdale • From individual recliners in the break room at Bluffdale Fire Station 92, firefighters on duty for a Tuesday noon shift gather side by side in front of a television decorated with small axes. Among them there is a familiarity of people who spend whole days and nights working as a team.
That level of comfort remains unchanged, even in front of their new fire chief, Matt Evans. They laugh and joke about whether he will be the one paying for dinner that night. Until late July, Evans was one of them, a part-time staff member, taking extra shifts from his full-time job at the Sandy Fire Department.
After the departure of his two predecessors, Evans held one of the few full-time positions in the Bluffdale Fire Department. With that came the challenge of raising a public security force that has come under scrutiny, even outrage, over money troubles that led to criminal charges against a former leader.
Nearly two months after his appointment, Evans has a plan to improve service, prioritizing safety measures for firefighters and prompt service for the city. Staffing and transparency also make his list of topics to discuss.
“My five-year goal is to make this department a full-time department,” Evans said, “as budget permits.”
Evans recruited four new firefighters and promoted three battalion chiefs and a captain who, in addition to his role as part-time emergency manager, works full-time for the city.
During Evans’ brief stint at the helm, firefighters received a 9% pay raise, bringing the entry-level hourly wage to $15.17. Still, more increases must come. A first-year full-time firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority earns $47,819 a year.
“It’s super difficult right now to maintain our workforce. And I think it’s probably difficult for other fire departments as well, but we’re part-time so it’s even more difficult,” a- he said, “Our salary is a bit lower, so it’s harder to bring people here.”
Most firefighters work 48 hours at a station in another city, then travel to Bluffdale and log an additional 24 hours, fulfilling their commitment of two shifts per month. Ensuring all shifts are filled can be difficult, but Evans hopes better financial incentives will change that.
For example, those who want to work harder now have access to a bonus program created by the new chef. If employees take a third shift, the department pays an hourly increase of $2; a fourth shift earns them $4 more than their base salary.
With new equipment and the prospect of receiving grants to incorporate more full-time leadership positions, the ministry expects to be able to better respond to emergencies.
It’s been a long job since 2020, when former chief John Roberts resigned after three firefighters filed complaints about paying firefighters for days they hadn’t worked, in addition to concerns about poor coverage , the lack of guidelines regarding COVID-19 and unsafe decisions at fire scenes.
After an investigation, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office charged Roberts last month with embezzling public money and falsifying government documents.
Since then, the department has changed its manual payroll system to digital format. And from the perspective of firefighters, there is more overall consistency within their teams.
“It’s nice to have that connection with each other,” Lt. Dustin Moon said, “because you know how each other works.”
The teams in place are now grouped together on the same shifts. This steady rhythm, Moon said, helps them anticipate their teammates’ movements at emergency scenes.
“The days before it was a little rougher,” said Chris Wood, a captain. “So once [teamwork] started happening, it was better to be here.
The scar of how the ministry was run in the past is fading. And, in general, Wood said, morale is up.
“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, that’s what it is. It’s history. We move forward.
However, challenges remain. Teams are sometimes understaffed and the time it takes to get equipment or funding approved can be frustrating.
“If you dial 911, something pops up. You don’t really know how it looks. You just know it shows. We understand how it all works,” Wood said. “It seems simple to us. But sometimes it’s just not easy to get the message to the holders of the purse strings or the people who control that part of the message. »
A new view
The Bluffdale Fire Department began as a volunteer force. Roberts, the ex-chief, became its first full-time employee in 2012. Today, 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 for more full-time firefighters.
“Our goal is to continue to increase our funding for the fire department,” Hall said, “so we can eventually make sure both stations are still staffed.”
Bluffdale has mutual aid agreements with the Unified Fire Authority and cities such as Draper. If an emergency occurs while the Bluffdale Fire Department is on another call, other towns step in to cover it and vice versa.
Evans credits his immediate predecessor, former fire chief Warren James, with updating a lot of equipment, securing another engine and an ambulance. Evans is therefore focused on the next steps: promotions, higher salaries and better staffing.
After a tumultuous time, Evans said, the only way forward is to go up.
“We’re all ready to do anything,” he said. “We have excellent paramedics. We have excellent captains and firefighters.
Bluffdale just needs more.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America member of the corps and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.