Both service and family are important to Colorado Springs Fire Chief Ted Collas. That’s why it means so much that the 33-year veteran’s son is following in his footsteps.
“I got asked when I was interviewing for my job, ‘What’s the greatest contribution that I’ve made to the department?’ I would say, beyond a doubt, it’s him,” Collas said. “He’ll be able to serve this community and do a great job here long after I am gone.”
Born in Pueblo, Collas grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he earned an associate degree in fire science from Honolulu Community College.
Collas moved to Colorado Springs in the mid-1980s after his parents returned to the state.
He also has a bachelor’s degree in management from Colorado Christian University and a master’s in organizational leadership from Regis University.
In August 2016, he was sworn in as the CSFD fire chief.
“It’s really the only career I’ve ever contemplated — the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” Collas said.
The fire department’s top dog recently spoke with the Business Journal about why he became a firefighter, wildfire season and the Highway 117 fire.
“We have a great organization that is doing things where other departments across the country are looking to us as an example,” Collas said. “As long as we can keep that kind of innovation going, we’re doing the right thing.”
What made you want to become a firefighter?
Honestly, it’s a silly story but watching a movie during fire prevention week when I was in the fifth grade. I’m sure it was all staged, thinking about it now. But as a fifth grader, it was really realistic. I saw a firefighter coming out of a forest fire and he stops and picks up this little Bambi-looking deer and then runs it to safety. I thought it looked cool and was something honorable to do. Then, as I matured, I thought people have even greater value than that deer did, so I thought I would rather be a firefighter in a municipality where I could put myself to work helping people. I don’t want to diminish those who fight forest fires, but my personal calling was to help people.
Talk about your time with CSFD.
I tell people that I grew up here because I really did. I came in as a pretty naïve 23-year-old and learned really quickly in real-life situations about the world around me. I went through the firefighter positions and then got really attracted to the medical part of the job, so I became a paramedic and loved that. That’s probably the job where I feel I got the greatest reward, because it’s so hands-on. Then, every time that I was in a position, I was always looking forward and seeing if I had any more to contribute. When I felt like there was more I could do, I would test for the next position and that’s really how I made it all the way to deputy chief. When our previous chief announced his plans to retire, I again asked myself if I had more to contribute. They were going to do a national search for the new chief and I didn’t want there not be an internal candidate apply. That initially got me to fill out the application, but then the competitive nature kicked in. I realized I do have something more to contribute and as long as I am able to, I am going to. I feel very blessed to have made it to the top position in the organization I’ve spent nearly half my life with.
How is leading CSFD different from being a chief in another city?
It’s not really. I just yesterday came back from the Metro Fire Chiefs Conference with chiefs from departments from large cities all over our country. I sat down with the fire chief from Houston, who has 4,000 firefighters, and we only have 444. As we were talking, he said to me, ‘Our issues are the same; it’s a matter of scope.’ The departments are the same. We have the same mission. We care for our communities in the same manner, but the scope is different. Certainly every department will have different challenges based on location. We don’t have threats of hurricanes, but Houston does. While we have the threat of snowstorms, they don’t. We have our unique geographical challenges, but as organizations, we are all trying to do the same thing. Those of us who work in municipalities — we compete for budget dollars with city departments. The city’s job — our job — is to make sure we improve the quality of life for all citizens.
What are some challenges you face as CSFD chief?
The threat of wildfires is probably the biggest risk for our community. We have more homes or properties in the wildland/urban interface overlay than any other city in Colorado at 34,000 addresses. So wildfires are definitely a big concern for us.
How does the department prepare for wildfire season?
Wildfire season is year round now. We know how dry of a winter we had with little moisture recovery. Sometimes, when you get wet springs, you can take a deep breath, but we haven’t had that this year. We’re always preparing and training. Our firefighters drill on it every year. It’s part of our proficiency training. We’ve got two teams at Station 4 and 9 that are our wildland headquarter teams. Those folks are trained to technician level in a lot of different aspects of wildland firefighting. Also, all of our new trainees for the last 20 years have been trained as a wildland firefighter. We take that threat seriously. We train and equip our people. We have 17 brush trucks and 22 fire stations. Many other municipalities don’t have that level of physical resources. We have them because … of the need to be able to get in there quickly and contain the fires.
How do you feel CSFD responded to the Highway 117 fire?
I thought we responded well. That fire started outside of our jurisdiction — down in Hanover. Those folks have had a rough year so far with a lot of fast-moving wildfires, but they got a lot of support right away. We sent units. Others in the county and beyond our county were sending resources to help. When we know people’s homes and their possessions are at risk, the firefighting community becomes very close. We always send as many resources as we can afford. On days where the winds are so high, like 60 mph, and there is a heightened threat in the city too, we don’t send all of our resources, obviously. We have to make sure that our community is taken care of, but we are going to send everything we can afford to send to help out any community in need. … Back in 2012, when the Waldo Canyon fire came through Colorado Springs, it started in an unincorporated county area. Then it went up towards Woodland Park and ultimately came down into Colorado Springs and 346 homes were destroyed by it. We had over 1,000 firefighters here. Firefighters from all across America came to help fight that fire. That’s how the fire-fighting community works.
Are there plans to add to the department’s ranks?
This year, we hired eight additional positions. Those folks are in the training academy right now and will graduate at the end of June. It’s our hope to grow by another eight next year. Then, either next year or the following year, we want to reinstitute our HAZMAT team. As a part of the economic downturn, after 2008, we lost a full-time HAZMAT team. Now, we are having to cross-staff, which means there are two trucks at one fire station. One is an engine and one’s a HAZMAT truck and, depending on the call that comes in, the crew takes gear off of one and staffs the other and vice versa. In a city our size, that’s a priority for us to restore that team.
How has being a firefighter changed over the past 20 years?
I think we’ve become more professional as a service. When I entered the fire service, we didn’t have educational requirements for promoted positions, and now we do. That was probably from three chiefs before me that the educational requirements were instituted. You have to have an associate’s degree to be a company officer or a lieutenant or captain. A battalion chief has to have a bachelor’s degree. We have really embraced national certifications for every position. The level of professionalism has definitely gone up.
How is leading a fire department different from a business?
I’ve never been the leader of a business, but I can say that we have a very highly motivated, high-speed, low drag workforce here. They want to move forward and they want to move forward fast. None of our employees want to wish harm on anyone in our community, but when there is harm being done, our firefighters want to be right there in the thick of it trying to help restore order. Being able to be around hard chargers like that all of the time, who really care about the community and the people they are serving — it’s just a career highlight for me.
Want to talk about your family?
I have a son who is with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. He’s been here for three years. I also have a daughter-in-law and, of course, I am married. I had another son who was my oldest who was 19 years old when he was killed in a traffic accident on the south end of the city. One of the things that I do to occupy my time and in his memory is make wooden Colorado flags. It’s a stress reliever for me. I love to make them. I always put a little sticker on the back that has his picture and talks about how much he loved the state of Colorado. That’s what I do to keep his memory alive and it’s just good therapy for me to get in the woodshop and turn wood into sawdust.