‘That’s history’ — Bluffdale firefighters move on after former fire chief’s criminal charges

With fresh optimism and teamwork, new chief is working to keep shifts fully staffed.

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

Bluffdale • From individual recliners in the break room of Bluffdale’s Fire Station 92, the firefighters on duty for a Tuesday noon shift gather side by side in front of a TV decorated with small axes. Among them, there is a familiarity of people who spend entire days and nights working as a team.

That level of comfort remains undiminished — 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. Up until late July, Evans was one of them, a part-time staffer, taking additional shifts from his full-time job at the Sandy Fire Department.

After the departure of his two predecessors, Evans took one of the few full-time positions in the Bluffdale Fire Department. With it came the challenge of lifting up a public safety force that has faced scrutiny, even scandal, over money issues that led to criminal charges against a former chief.

Almost two months into his appointment, Evans has a plan to improve the department, prioritizing safety measures for firefighters and quick service for the city. Staffing and transparency also make his list of topics to address.

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

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

Evans has brought in four new firefighters and promoted three battalion chiefs and a captain, who, along with his part-time emergency manager role, is working full time for the city.

During Evans’ brief stint at the helm, firefighters have received a 9% salary bump, taking the entry-level hourly wage to $15.17. Still, more raises need to come. A first-year full-time firefighter at the Unified Fire Authority makes $47,819 a year.

“It’s super hard right now to keep our staffing up. And I believe it’s probably hard for other fire departments also, but we’re part time so it’s even harder,” he said. “Our pay is a little bit 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 and log 24 additional hours, fulfilling their two-shifts-a-month commitment. It can be tough to ensure that all shifts are filled, but Evans hopes that better financial incentives change that.

For instance, those who want to work more now have access to a bonus program the new chief created. If employees take a third shift, the department pays a $2 hourly increase; a fourth shift earns them $4 more than their base wage.

With new equipment and the prospects of receiving grants to incorporate more full-time leadership positions, the department expects to be able to better respond to emergencies.

Moving forward

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

It has been a long slog 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 improper coverage, lack of guidelines around COVID-19 and unsafe decisions at fire scenes.

After an investigation, the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office charged Roberts last month with misusing public money and falsifying government records.

Since then, the department has changed its manual payroll system to a digital format. And from the firefighters’ perspective, 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.”

Established crews are now put together on the same shifts. That steady pace, Moon said, helps them anticipate their teammates’ moves at emergency scenes.

“On earlier days, it was a little more roughshod,” Chris Wood, a captain said. “So once that [teamwork] started happening, it felt better to be here.”

The scar of how the department was managed 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 Sept. 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’ll speak for myself. I mean, it is what it is. That’s history. We’re moving on.”

Challenges do, however, remain. Shifts sometimes miss personnel, and the time it takes to win approval for equipment or funding can be frustrating.

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

A new vision

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

The Bluffdale Fire Department started as a volunteer force. Roberts, the ex-chief, became its 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, has her hopes set 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 that eventually we can make sure to always have both stations fully staffed.”

Bluffdale has mutual aid agreements with the Unified Fire Authority and cities such as Draper. If an emergency happens while the Bluffdale Fire Department is on another call, other cities 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. So Evans is focusing on the next steps: promotions, higher pay and better staffing.

After a tumultuous time, Evans said, the only way to go is up.

“We’re all prepared to do anything,” he said. “We have great paramedics. We have great captains and firefighters.”

Bluffdale just needs more of them.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member 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 keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.