Community bids farewell to Summit Fire Chief Jeff Berino

The community will bid farewell to Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino next month, a 40-year public servant in Summit County who will officially be retiring on July 3.

“From starting at Frisco Fire with 20 volunteers, to what is now a fully career department with a staff of close to 110 people, it’s been fun to watch it grow in a methodical conscientious manner,” Berino said. “And it has been a true privilege to have served this community.”

Berino grew up bouncing around the New England area, and said he took on an early interest in the world of firefighting and emergency response. In 1973, as a 17-year-old Explorer Scout in Stanford, Connecticut, he helped to create the town’s first ambulance out of a refurbished bread truck.

He earned a degree in business management at North Adams State College in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, and went on to work for the state’s department of natural resources, knocking out small wildfires with brooms and shovels. From there, his absorption into the work continued to grow.

Berino moved to Summit County in 1979, and signed on as a volunteer at the former Frisco Fire District in May 1980. The scene was a definite departure from modern fire departments.

“The application was something like filling out a piece of paper, and there was a pile of gear in the corner so you could find something that fit you,” Berino said. “They had also just gotten pagers, because there used to just be an air raid siren. In ’80, the pager was way cool.”

Berino continued to move up the ranks at Frisco Fire while earning his degree in Fire Science from Colorado Mountain College, and in 1984 he became the second paid member of the fire department. Of note, Berino would later go on to teach at Colorado Mountain College for 15 years, and was named instructor of the year twice.

By the mid-90s, Berino had risen to assistant chief, and the county’s fire departments had rapidly begun to consolidate. The merger of the Lake Dillon, Dillon Valley and Silverthorne fire departments formed the earliest version of the Lake Dillon Fire Authority, followed by Frisco and eventually the Snake River Fire Protection District. In 2018, Copper Mountain Fire joined in to form the Summit Fire & EMS Authority, which consolidated with the Summit County Ambulance Service a year later.

Berino has fashioned himself into one of the top local experts on wildfires, serving as a Type III incident manager for state and federal fires. Here, he manages the Keystone Gulch wildfire in 2011.
Courtesy Summit Fire & EMS

Berino said that throughout his time in the district he wanted to be an agent of change for the community — someone who could stay ahead of the growth and growing demands for service in Summit County — and set his sights on chief

“We have collar insignias that indicate rank,” Berino said. “I bought one set of each of them, and just lined them up. That showed me where I wanted to end up.”

Berino was promoted to deputy chief in 2005, and was named chief in 2015.

“He’s a longtime Summit County boy, and he’s been around practically every fire department we have here going way back to Silverthorne Fire and Frisco Fire,” said Lori Miller, former chief at the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District and Summit Fire & EMS Board member. “When we hired him, we had really high hopes because he’s a go-getter. ‘No’ is not in his vocabulary, so we knew he would take Lake Dillon Fire to the next level, and he’s definitely done that in the last five years.”

During Berino’s time as chief, the district gained international professional accreditation from the Center of Public Safety Excellence and opened its new administration building in Frisco, in addition to the consolidations of Copper Mountain Fire, the ambulance service and more.

He was named Colorado Fire Chief of the Year in 2019, and was presented with the Frisco’s Finest Award earlier this year.

What community members may remember best is his quick response to the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire.

“I live up in Mesa Cortina, so when the Buffalo Fire happened there was nobody I would have been more grateful for to have at the helm,” Miller said. “He saved Wildernest and Mesa Cortina because of his early calls on air support, and getting people in the right places really fast. My heart swells thinking about it, because he made great calls. And he kept the Buffalo Fire from completely devastating the neighborhoods, and who knows, maybe even down to the outlet stores.”

But after 40 years of service, Berino said he’s checked off everything on his list.

“It’s not that there’s not more to do,” Berino said. “But we’ve got some fresh young blood, and some smart people. It’s time to pass on the baton.”

Berino said he and his wife Janis plan to stay in Summit County, and that he intends to spends retirement volunteering and exploring the nearby woods — this time without his pager.

Berino also has served for years as the pyrotechnics organizer for the annual Frisco fireworks shows. Here he shows off an 8-inch shell in 2016.
Courtesy Summit Fire & EMS

Berino will be replaced by Deputy Chief Travis Davis, who was selected by the Summit Fire & EMS Board in February.

“It’s truly an honor and a humbling experience,” Davis said. “The chief and I have worked together for a number of years, and he’s always been a valuable resource to the organization, community and everyone else who knew to take advantage of his experience. But I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity. Now it’s just about maintaining the seat.”

In looking back on his career, Berino recalled a number of frightening encounters and devastating moments — facing flames hundreds of feet high in the 1988 Yellowstone Fires, and losing Firefighter Ken Jones, who fell to his death late last year. But he also remembered saving the lives of a choking baby and a former sheriff’s deputy in cardiac arrest, along with funnier moments, like responding to the same wildfire as a young man who learned to “stop, drop and roll” from Berino in the fifth grade years earlier.

But what Berino said he’d miss most about the job was the people.

“The community has been great, and the staff,” said Berino. “Watching and mentoring these kids — they’re in their 20s, but that’s kids to me — we’ve got some really tremendous people. It’s been a true pleasure, and I feel like the ship here is sailing in a straight direction in smooth waters. Emotionally it will be difficult, but the fire service is a close knit bunch and we see each other often.”