Our view: Glacier View Fire Chief Greg Niswender resigns, will be missed

The Glacier View Fire Protection District received a heartbreaking blow when its long-term, and much beloved fire chief, Greg Niswender resigned after a mill-levy increase was voted down on May 6.

Niswender’s wife, Andrea, and his right-hand man, Lawrence (Bear) Beals, also resigned. Niswender had been fire chief for 30 years.

When I met him at the beginning of the High Park Fire two years ago, Niswender was fighting fires and answering medical calls with a crew of loyal volunteers and a fleet that included a new ambulance and a motley fleet of older vehicles. The newest fire truck was a 1992 model, which today can be seen outside of the firehouse as an antique mascot and is up for sale.

But even underfinanced and underequipped, the department, with the help of federal firefighters, was able to execute a plan that saved hundreds of properties during 10 days of preparation and an eight-hour firefight on June 22, 2012.

After the fire, the department received nearly $140,000 in donations, only 10 percent of which came from local sources. It also received a grant from the Division of Local Affairs and a loan of $80,000 in government capital.

The GVFD, which had been running on a 1980s budget, finally had a real firehouse. Along with his meticulously trained team of volunteers, Niswender managed to achieve a consistent response time of between 4 and 7 minutes. Not bad, especially for an area where properties with the most spectacular views can be notoriously hard to get to, especially during snowstorms and mudslides.

Consider the case of Jeremy Rentola, a machinist at Peak Engineering, who was on his way to work on the morning of Oct. 22, 2013, when he was involved in a single car accident at the base of McNay Hill near mile marker 9. No one witnessed the accident but it was assumed that he swerved to avoid hitting a deer, a maneuver that sent his car hurtling over the side of the road and into a ravine, rolling several times in the process and finally crashing into a tree.

The 911 call was received at 6:49 a.m. and dispatched at 6:51 a.m. Niswender received the page at 6:52 a.m. and was on the scene by 7:04 a.m. Seven volunteers and four emergency vehicles, including an ambulance, also were on the scene.

Rentola had serious injuries to his neck and back and a traumatic brain injury. In the words of Niswender, “he was dead when we found him.”

Through the efforts of the emergency response team and the rapid helicopter transport to the hospital, Rentola’s life was saved. He is making remarkable progress in his recovery after several surgeries and extensive physical therapy. Rentola’s family has said that without the Glacier View Fire Department, they would have lost a husband, son and father.

At a meeting on April 19 concerning the mill levy, a contentious Glacier View community ignited a firestorm of hot air unseen since the High Park Fire consumed the 12th filing in a matter of hours.

It is true that a 300 percent budget increase is a hefty sum and it was presented on short notice. And the documentation, published on the department’s website, was a bit confusing. Someone like Niswender, whose job it had been to fight fires, save lives and train others to do the same, may not have made the best administrator or budget manager and he may not have known a thing about election law. The fact that there was no one there to help him do the job may have been part of the problem. There were many residents at the meeting who boasted firehouse, grant writing and fundraising experience but none seemed interested in lending a hand.

Only one person actually volunteered to help train the board in the areas he perceived to be lacking. The impression was that the rest just couldn’t be bothered.
Retirees who buy into the cool mountains of Colorado, far away from the crowds and bustle of the big city, want to spend the rest of their lives on vacation — fishing, skiing, playing golf and enjoying the views. They don’t expect to be called upon to participate in the community in order to have the same emergency services that are taken for granted in the city. The realities of life in rural communities in Colorado are described in brutal detail on the site: http://www.co.larimer.co.us/depts/Planni/planning/code_of_the_west.

There is no central governing body in any of the communities on CR 74E and therefore, no one to make the important decisions. According to Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, the fire chief in an unincorporated area becomes the defacto mayor. Niswender was often forced to act on his own, building the strongest fire department in the region, often with the disadvantage of having to answer calls outside of the Glacier View community.

None of the emergency services in the region is adequately supported. Every one of the local fire departments is dependent on volunteers and manpower is always an issue. Budgets are far too low and fire danger is at an all-time high. According to Crystal Lakes fire Chief Marian Kelly, 30 to 50 percent of the pine trees in her forested district are beetle killed, and her budget has not increased since 1995.

Many residents probably don’t know how important their local firehouse really is, imagining that the county will come riding in like the cavalry and save the day. In reality, the county only provides the second line of defense, is not equipped for structure fires and does not provide EMT services.

So who you gonna call?

Many local residents are part-timers and snowbirds who spend their winters in Arizona or owners of vacation properties who may only visit the area a couple of times a year. They may not feel the need or want to pay full time for the necessities of life in the mountains. This can complicate to no end the efforts required to raise a budget that protects homes and properties year-round. Apparently, the failed mill levy wasn’t the right answer. But now, what is?

The new Glacier View fire Chief Bob Isaacson is experienced and competent, having served the department for over 10 years. He also has Todd Westfall as his assistant chief. Todd has three years of experience with the GVFD and is a member of the Larimer County Search and Rescue. In a phone interview on May 21, Isaacson was feeling positive about the future of the Glacier View Fire District. At a meeting on May 20, 40 members of the Glacier View community showed up and many signed on to volunteer.

While the new chief admits that there are still naysayers, he feels confident that the challenges can be met and that he and his team of volunteers will be able to maintain the same level of service as delivered by the department under the leadership of Greg Niswender.
But I still love the old chief. He and his team answered my distress calls more than once and he was always cheerful, professional and reassuringly goofy in some tense situations. He will be sorely missed.

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