After serving on the Buena Vista Fire Department since 2001, first as a volunteer and eventually as the town’s first full-time paid fire chief, Dixon Villers retired last week.
In that time, Villers oversaw the department as it adapted to meet the needs of a rapidly growing town.
“When I started in ‘14, I had a $68,000 budget,” Villers said. At the end of his career, that budget was closer to a half-million dollars.
Buena Vista town administrator Phillip Puckett, who was on the town board of trustees in 2014 when Villers was hired first to a part-time, then full-time paid position, said, “I definitely feel that a part of Dixon’s legacy was addressing the growth that we’ve experienced and continue to experience … He was definitely aware of the impacts that the growth has on first responders and the expectation for a level of service from the fire department by the community. So he was very interested in properly staffing and building up a staff that could handle that.”
Villers said that this understanding came from his time on the Cañon City Fire Department, where he served for 9 years and watched that community grow.
“When I took over in 2014, I had been on the department as a volunteer since ‘01, and I just saw this need because I had seen the growth happen in Cañon City years before when I was on that department. I wanted to be able to dedicate as much time as possible, so I went to the board at the time and asked them about giving me the position full time,” Villers said.
Puckett said that the decision to make the position of fire chief a paid one had been a topic of conversation for a while, but finally came to fruition when discussions of a potential county-wide fire authority fell through.
“Ultimately at that time, there just wasn’t consensus on how any combination of those things could work out, so the decision was made, at staff recommendation, but at the board decision, to help create stability for the department and achieve some of the other goals that came out of those studies and those discussions, which mainly involved things like training, proper and consistent equipment and addressing volunteer/personnel strategies, he said.
“The challenges were mounting with having a complete volunteer department. We were seeing people have trouble managing their professional careers and being able to spend the necessary amount of time for the big-picture, time-intensive matters, and we recognized the town administrator could not do that, take that on in addition to all the other responsibilities.”
At that time, volunteerism with the department was declining, and the requirements for certifications, skills and levels of equipment were rising.
“The decision point was, if there was no path forward on creating a fire authority, we needed to move forward with getting that paid staff member,” Puckett said. With the “more consistent presence” of a full-time chief, “Dixon started to identify things that were needed, so over the next few years, we slowly increased the staffing level, the paid staffing level.”
Villers became the town’s first paid chief at $25 an hour, with a cap at 10 hours per week, per a board decision in March 2014.
The department now has four full-time, paid firefighters, as well as a part-time administrative assistant and part-time mechanic.
“Which was huge because our quality of care was we could respond quicker from the station, and rather than having volunteers come to the station to get equipment, we’ve got people that are housed at the station at night, so the call comes in, that shaves off minutes,” Villers said. “And when someone’s having a cardiac event, seconds matter.”
Villers said that a fire prevention program put on by the department has greatly reduced the frequency of structure fires, and now much of the department’s call volume is medical.
That need increases in the summer as more and more people visit the Upper Arkansas Valley.
Villers said his greatest achievement in his tenure as fire chief is “bringing the department from an all volunteer to a paid combination department with the capability of getting new equipment, new trucks,” but also the creation of a wildland firefighting program that would allow the department to bring in revenue of its own.
“I had 28 years as a structure firefighter, 12 years with the federal government fighting wildfire. I had been involved in structure protection out in California – I couldn’t tell you all the places I fought wildfire – I knew it was an avenue to be able to generate some revenue and get some equipment we desperately needed,” Villers said.
Villers had long struggled with repeated repairs to a 1974 LaFrance engine that had been purchased from the Gunnison Fire Department, and revenue from the wildland program allowed the town to purchase Engine 8, a new rescue truck, and Brush 7, “and that kind of kicked it all off.”
Puckett said that the capital plan developed with Villers not only called for new trucks, but also safety equipment like backup generators.
“None of our facilities had backup generators,” Puckett said. “One Christmas Day a few years back, the area lost electricity for several hours, and it was a very, very cold day, and we had people down at the community center, which is one of our shelters during an emergency … We quickly realized that we need to get backup generators in place. We now have backup generators at the community center, police department and the fire department.”
Additionally, “getting the proper breathing apparatus for the firefighters, things like that, needed to be put into a plan, “ he said. “Over the years, we’ve checked off a bunch of those items.”
Still, Buena Vista’s growth is very much a consideration in the present and future tense, and the next fire chief – who, in light of the position’s importance, the town is taking its time in selecting, Puckett said – will need to continue to build the department to keep pace.
The department’s existing paid staff still aren’t enough to cover 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with sustainable shifts, he said. The town’s firehouse, awkwardly situated in a wedge between U.S. Highway 24 and Linderman Avenue, needs replacing.
“They’ll also need to be looking at a ladder truck, and of course, we’ve started working with the town and the board of trustees on the location of a new firehouse that needs to be built and sustainable for at least 70 years as the town moves into the future,” Villers said.
Villers said he had also been speaking with airport manager Jack Wyles about a firefighting truck stationed at the Buena Vista’s Central Colorado Regional Airport.
“We’re getting more jets and more high-altitude testing, and with the types of fuels and metals in aircraft, he’s going to have to start looking at purchasing one of them,” Villers said.
As for his plans for retirement retirement, Villers said, “All’s I know is I’ll probably hit the road and wherever my pickup and my camper trailer take me, I want to go see things.
“My career has always been to serve the public and fight wildland and structure, and I’m ready to see things that I’ve always wanted to go see,” he said.