Tri-Lakes staff standing in front of fire trucks

Talking Safety with Tri-Lakes Monument Fire

Fire Chief Andy Kovacs discusses safety initiatives, fire mitigation, and more

Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District is a district with a clear vision. No task is too large, no obstacle too daunting, and no safety measure is overlooked. With a coverage area of 50 square miles, a service population of over 33,000, and the threat of fire looming constantly over their shoulders, Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District is a gleaming example of proactivity and responsiveness.

Fire Chief Andy Kovacs generously gave his time to answer some of our questions about his district. Below, we have selected the highlights of our interview with him.

CSD Pool: What do you consider your most important current safety initiatives?

Chief Kovacs: Our most important safety initiatives are two-fold: community and employees.

[On community] Having come from the Southern California area, I have witnessed the devastating effects of wildland-urban interface fires.

The Colorado Front Range is highly susceptible to [wildland-urban interface] fires as evidenced by the Marshall Fire in Boulder County and the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest Fires in El Paso County. Our initiatives were derived from the process of developing a five-year strategic plan and pursuing agency accreditation.

The strategic plan was formulated through the input of both internal and external stakeholders, with both groups echoing their concerns about wildfires. We are constantly seeking ways to make our communities resilient to this threat to include a robust chipping/mitigation program, training with partner agencies, purchasing wildland firefighting equipment and apparatus, and developing wildland pre-fire plans.

Ft Carson Fire Landscape

[On employees] Our employees are our greatest asset! I want our firefighters to lead a productive fire service career, and more importantly, enjoy a long and healthy retirement.

The risk of cancer is more prevalent in firefighters. As such, we are taking significant steps to keep our firefighters safe, including gross decontamination of the products of combustion on the fireground, sunscreen dispensers at each fire station and our administrative offices, annual physicals, certifying peer fitness trainers to produce a monthly newsletter, workout, and nutrition advice, and purchasing fire apparatus that adhere to a “clean cab” concept.

Additionally, mental health and wellness are important in our profession. Firefighters are exposed to incredible mental stresses. We currently are expanding our peer support team, directed by a clinical psychologist. The district also provides quarterly training, and we are sharing a chaplain program with Monument Police Department.

CSD Pool: Can you say more about the fire mitigation plan being implemented for the Town of Monument?

Chief Kovacs: After the devastating Marshall Fire, the Town of Monument and the Tri-Lakes Monument/Donald Wescott Fire Protection District are committed to keeping our community safe from wildfires. With no end in sight to the lack of moisture in Colorado and the Western United States, we feel a fire mitigation plan is essential.

I believe it will take 12 to 18 months to complete this project and do not feel it is overly ambitious.

The state provides numerous grants to help with projects like this, and we will actively pursue those opportunities. We will work intimately with the Town of Monument and other stakeholder groups to achieve our goal.

Success will be measured by eliminating, but more realistically, minimizing the impact on our residents and local businesses should we have a wildfire.

CSD Pool: How much of your time is spent planning community mitigation efforts, and why is partnering with neighborhoods such a high priority?

Chief Kovacs: We spend a considerable amount of time educating our public through town hall meetings, social media, fire station tours, our website, and other community events to get the message out about wildfire preparedness.

Our chipping program for 2022 will include over twelve homeowner’s associations throughout the district, totaling 21-days. When we ask homeowners to provide “sweat equity” in a project like this, it helps to achieve community buy-in and encourages community engagement.

Thankfully, the district has not experienced many wildfires, but through the combined efforts of all partner agencies and stakeholders, we hope to minimize the impact.

CSD Pool: What is it like partnering with other safety agencies when performing drills? Who have you partnered with, and what drills are the most important to staff safety?

Chief Kovacs: Collaboration and relationships are key to the successful outcome of an incident. As such, we are routinely training with our partner agencies (fire departments, law enforcement, OEM, public works) to improve our response to an emergency.

Our local partners include Palmer Lake Fire, Air Force Academy Fire, Black Forest Fire, Colorado Springs Fire, Monument PD, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, El Paso County OEM, Town of Monument, and CDOT, D38 Schools, to name a few. Drills that can provide as real an experience as what our firefighters may encounter are the most beneficial.

From these exercises, we have improved communication between our partner agencies, the purchase of apparatus and equipment to complement each other and standardizing policy and procedure. One recent example was hosting multi-jurisdictional training to provide uniformity when responding to structure fires using the concepts found in the incident command system.

CSD Pool: Do you currently recommend any kind of diet or exercise programs for employees?

Chief Kovacs: The fire district has certified peer fitness trainers on each of our three shifts.

Our trainers provide a monthly newsletter to all employees on topics of nutrition, strength training, cardiovascular training, supplements, injury recovery, and other topics. Our firefighters are referred to as tactical athletes, much like the military and law enforcement.

As such, we expect them to train and be physically fit for the demands of the job. By encouraging a healthy lifestyle, we can better serve our community, while keeping our firefighters free of injury and illness.

CSD Pool: What other safety goals do you have for Tri-Lakes Monument Fire Protection District in 2022?

Chief Kovacs: The district is constantly evaluating how to be better. The agency accreditation process will help us identify the areas we perform well in, while, more importantly, it helps to identify deficiencies or areas of weakness.

The district has a safety committee that meets monthly to review injury claims, vehicle accidents, and other safety-related concerns to help prevent them from occurring in the future and help change behavior.

Our district spends a lot of time on Interstate 25 for motor vehicle accidents. In 2022, we purchased hardware for our fire and EMS apparatus.

Drivers who use Waze, Google Maps, or other navigation software in their vehicle will be alerted to a responding emergency vehicle and if we are working on the side of the roadway. We hope this tool will alert drivers, so they will slow down and be mindful of our firefighter’s safety!

CSD Pool: What advice with you give to similar organizations or members that are struggling with their safety goals?

Chief Kovacs: Consider performing a SWOT [Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threat]assessment of your organization to determine what you are doing well, and where you might be able to improve.

Be open-minded to making changes. Change can be difficult for some. Explaining and communicating your intentions early and often can alleviate apprehension or fear of change.

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A big thank you to Tri-Lakes Monument Fire for answering our questions!

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