Fire service study considers special needs workers
Sometimes all it takes is giving a person the chance to prove what they can do.
At least, that’s what Doug Bloomquist figures. As operations executive officer for the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority, Bloomquist makes sure the workforce is functioning efficiently and effectively. He also has the opportunity to introduce new programs that not only help the fire service, but incorporate the community.
Enter Marty Williams, a 20-year-old developmentally disabled man from Parker who got in trouble for pulling a fire alarm at his apartment complex last year. Williams learned a lesson from the firefighters at South Metro’s station 41, near Mainstreet and Pine Drive, who took him under their wing. Bloomquist took notice when he started seeing Williams hanging out at the station and helping with the cleaning duties.
The department’s fleet manager suggested finding Williams a role in the supply warehouse, and Bloomquist got a positive reaction from quartermaster Matt Whipple, who is in charge of filling supply orders for all of the firehouses.
Williams has since become fully involved as a weekly volunteer, gathering necessities like coffee, cleaning supplies, batteries and window washer fluid for the fire trucks to send to the appropriate station. He also helps fill orders and deliver uniforms and gear.
“The nice thing about doing this for Marty is that he gets to see what else is out there,” Whipple says. “Instead of just South Metro Fire being station 41, he gets to see what goes into it from this side or over at the admin building.”
Williams is in the Bridge Program, a transition program that enables developmentally disabled adults to gain job skills they can use in the workforce. Now Bloomquist, as part of a research project for senior fire officials, is developing a pilot program, of which Williams is the first participant. The research will determine whether developmentally disabled adults should become employed at South Metro and what roles they might fill.
“It’s a group that’s really kind of discriminated against and there are a lot of possibilities out there for them,” Bloomquist said. “I think that’s part of our community responsibility to look at those.”
Bloomquist recently finished a needs analysis by sending out a questionnaire to every staffer in the department to “give me an idea of where we could possibly carve out jobs,” including administrative positions.
Whipple has adapted the job to help Williams perform better. As of one month ago, the supply orders come with pictures of the requested items.
“It helps him identify how to fill the order. It didn’t take a whole lot, it was inexpensive, and it makes a world of difference,” Bloomquist said.
Little notes like that will likely be included in a presentation he makes to the South Metro Fire Rescue board of directors, the body that makes decisions on budget allocations for new positions.
The pilot program has given Williams the job skills and confidence that will come in handy in a permanent role at the fire department or in another professional setting. He also works at Dollar Tree in Parker, and when he’s not volunteering, working or attending school, Williams is in a predictable place.
“Hang out with (Station) 41,” he said. “Stay out of trouble.”
Chris Fairbanks, his aunt and guardian, says the crews serve as mentors and make Williams do his homework. He comes along on some emergency calls, helps the firefighters clean the firehouse and works out with them. He is made to feel like one of the guys, and Williams shows his gratitude with his work ethic.
“He tries to help anybody that needs help,” Fairbanks said.
Since the program is in its infancy, applications for new volunteers are not being accepted. Easter Seals and Goodwill will analyze the results of Bloomquist’s program and help define the positions, and the fire district will work with the Bridge Program and Developmental Pathways to bring in new recruits. No other department has created such a program, Bloomquist said, and if funding is approved, his plan is to roll it out next year. The pilot program could become a model for other departments.