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Bittle builds relationships as new assistant fire chief

Shawn Bittle is the new assistant fire chief for the Cortez Fire Protection District.

Shawn Bittle, Cortez Fire Protection District’s new assistant fire chief, is excited to get back to his roots and focus on the community in Southwest Colorado, he said Wednesday.

A 25-year veteran of the fire service industry, Bittle comes to Cortez from the St. Louis fire department, where he worked for 17 years as a firefighter and paramedic.

Bittle started working with the department April 18. After the first few weeks, he said he’s discovered a lot about Cortez and is excited to learn more.

“I love the community and the atmosphere,” he said. “People have been very welcoming. It’s a lovely community with lots of opportunities to get involved and great local traditions.”

Before working in the St. Louis fire department, Bittle got his start working as a firefighter for a combination department — one with full-time and part-time volunteer firefighters. St. Louis was a busy environment, so he said he wanted to make a return to a combination department.

“I was ready for a change,” Bittle said. “I wanted to share my experience and make a positive impact with the district and the community.”

Three top responsibilities of equal importance will characterize Bittle’s role as assistant fire chief, he said.

The first is an administrative role, which will involve supporting Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde and working toward the goals and directives of the district board. Bittle’s second responsibility will be taking care of the district’s firefighters. He said he will work to make sure the firefighters are trained well, provided excellent equipment and kept safe. The third responsibility will be customer service for residents of Cortez and visitors to the area and making sure those people get the respect and attention they deserve.

“Most people never have to dial 911,” Bittle said. “For those that do, there’s a good possibility that interaction will be our first and last interaction with the caller. So my job is to make sure that interaction is top-notch.”

Bittle said he wants to work on building community support and engagement with the fire district. That might include public events such as a 5K or barbecue in the park, he said. The public should get a chance to see what the fire district workers do on a daily basis, he said.

“Most people don’t understand how far we go to protect the community,” Bittle said.

Bittle said he hopes to push recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. He’s a big believer in the volunteer system, he said, and people can gain a lot from the volunteer experience.

There are different approaches to recruiting and retaining volunteers, he said. He hopes to build up some incentives for keeping volunteers up-to-date with their training courses, he said.

Bittle said he’s already gotten a chance to meet other emergency response personnel in the area. He is a big advocate for involving all regional players, he said. Everyone has something to offer, and everyone should keep an open mind and think outside the box, he said.

“Working with other agencies is how you build relationships,” he said.

Bittle said he wants to help make the Cortez Fire Protection District a first-resort option and not a last-resort for people in the area.

“I’m honored to be here and I take this job very seriously,” he said. “The citizens here should be very proud of the service here. It’s top-notch.”

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