Fighting the fires

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Every day, there are public servants who help save people from fires, help put out fires and they go to sites where something bad happens, such as car accidents, structure fires, heart attacks, strokes and other events that might need attendance by firefighters.

In unincorporated Valencia County, there about 125 firefighter and emergency medical personnel who, on a daily basis, are there to help their fellow citizens in the time of need.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales says the amount of volunteers the county depends on has decreased over the year, making the need for more career firefighters more important.

It’s a responsibility they take seriously and, from a government standpoint, it’s a necessity.

Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales has been in the fire service since the first day he stepped into the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department with his brothers in November 2000. That was nearly 14 years ago, and he’s never once regretted his decision.

Gonzales’ chosen career path started out as a volunteer, much like most career firefighters. Through his years volunteering, he worked his way up through the ranks to the position of captain, and was hired as one of the first four full-time career firefighters for the county in 2008.

“I worked as a career full-time firefighter in the field for the county for about five years until I was appointed by the county manager as interim fire chief,” Gonzales said. “I applied, went through the process and ended up with the position.”

In the year since he’s been fire chief, Gonzales says he’s not doing the “trench work” he did when he was a full-time firefighter, but enjoys being able to lead and guide the department that is most useful to the county.

“My role in the field is very minimal, except in large-scale events with incident commands,” he said. “I do a lot of the administrative duties, a lot of the administrative duties. That’s my main focus: keeping the ship afloat.”

There are eight volunteer fire districts in the county, including six with medical rescues. The county also has a district with 12 paid staff, including the command staff and others trained as both firefighters and EMTs.

The volunteer departments include Manzano Vista, Tomé/ Adelino, Meadow Lake, Valencia/El Cerro, Highland Meadows, Rio Grande Estates, Highland Meadows, Los Chavez and Jarales.

“Because the numbers of volunteers are down, I’ve broadened the coverage of our paid staff to work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and another shift from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Chief Gonzales said. “That’s the best I could do with the resources we have without having to go to a 24-hour coverage in the county.”

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Belen Fire Chief Manny Garcia has been the head of the department for seven years. He said while the department has a small budget, he makes the most of grants, which helps with new vehicles.

For the most part, volunteers man the fire departments in unincorporated areas of Valencia County. The all-volunteer system first began either in the late 1950s or early ’60s, the fire chief said. Gonzales said in the beginning, community members were very enthusiastic about volunteering with their local fire departments and serving their community.

But because of today’s economy and the need to work more and more hours to put food on the table, the number of volunteers has steadily decreased. With departments having as little as five active volunteers to some with as much as 30, Gonzales said there is much more need in the volunteer departments.

“The amount of volunteers in the districts is hit or miss,” Gonzales said. “There are about five volunteers at Highland Meadows, but at Rio Grande Estates, which offers a lot in terms of training, has a large roster where their pushing 30 volunteers.

“We have two different rosters, an active roster and a support roster. The people on the active roster are people who participate in trainings, meetings, answering calls and who do daily station duties.”

The support members are set up in a way to assist the volunteer programs in the ways that they can. They may just be an EMT or just a firefighter or they might just have an issue that they can help in some shape or form.

Most volunteers have full-time jobs, and Gonzales is relying more and more on the career staff to handle the call volume in Valencia County, which, in 2012, reached nearly 10,000 calls for service, whether it was a medical or fire-related incident.

“You have some volunteers who are dedicated and will respond at all hours. It doesn’t matter if they have to be at work in an hour or not, they’ll get up and answer the call,” Gonzales said. “And then there are others who can answer when they can. They’re dedicated to their jobs and the families and, if they’re not available, they’re not available. In those cases, we’ve had to call career staff in to help or the command staff will be out there responding to calls.”

Gonzales says that the amount of training a department provides will most likely determine the amount of volunteers they’ll be able to recruit and retain. He said the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department is a good example of a department that provides high quality training.

“There are instructors from the fire and EMS academy that see the participation in training that department has and will recommend them to aspiring firefighters,” he said. “Some of the retention plans we have in place is they start as a volunteer in Valencia County, and we carry a PRN list or an as-needed employee list.”

The fire chief said if someone is a volunteer in good standing, they are eligible to apply for a part-time position with Valencia County. In the event if the career staff is on vacation or out sick, they are able to be hired on a part-time or temporary basis to fill in. Gonzales said it gives them an opportunity to see what the full-time, career staff is involved in on a daily basis.

Much like Gonzales, Belen Fire Chief Manny Garcia got his start in the fire service as a volunteer. He too began volunteering at the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department, but he was a freshman in high school when he made his decision to join.

Garcia has been with the BFD for 15 years, first as a volunteer. He was hired in April 2006, at age 26, as fire chief.

There are 10 career firefighters and EMTs, and 10 new volunteers, bringing up the volunteer roster to 30 volunteers. Of those, there are about 15 consistent active members.

“I put together a strategic plan in 2010 and, right now, we’re in the process of reviewing and updating it for 2015 through 2020,” Garcia said. “It’s a comprehensive look at fire service in the city. Our focus is to always, always, always improve the services we provide to the town, to the people.

“When people call 911, they expect us to be ready, they expect us to be on scene and to know and do our job,” Garcia said.

Being a firefighter, EMT or any type of first responder, every day on the job is different. But at the Belen Fire Department, each day begins with a shift briefing, and informational meeting where the staff and volunteers hear about what happened the day or night before.

“We go over anything like if we had any calls in need of attention, if there’s anything wrong with the facilities or the trucks,” he said. “Then we have to check our equipment, make sure our trucks have water, they have fuel and if they start.”

On any given shift, the BFD has a minimum of two staff members ready to go. With volunteers, it can be as many as eight people on a shift.

“The No. 1 job of a firefighter, other than responding to calls, is training,” Garcia said. “We have to train everyday. Either you’re reading a book, watching YouTube video on best practices or things that happen to other fire departments that you never want to happen here. So you learn and share that with the crew.

“Fire doesn’t change, it’s how we fight fire that changes,” the BFD chief said. “There’s new technology that comes out and there’s always new tools that is coming out that’s bigger and better. We have to stay ahead of the curve, but sometimes we’re limited by budget.”

While there’s so much a smaller department can purchase, even though they’re funded by taxpayers, Garcia continues to do what he can within his budget. It’s his job to forecast and put money away for future needs.

The Belen Fire Department has recently purchased a new ambulance, and is waiting on the arrival of a new brush truck and a new command vehicle. These three vehicles have been planned two or three years ago.

As with any first responder, firefighters are trained to respond to a call at a moments notice. They have to be ready and able to report to any given scene, regardless if it’s a structure fire, a heart attack or even a family of raccoons stuck on top of a power pole.

“We don’t know when and what types of calls are going to come in,” Garcia said. “We have to be ready right now.

“My feeling is if you don’t have public safety, you don’t have a town,” he said. “That should be a top priority for any government, so you’ll have the best firefighters, your best EMTs, your best police officers that help protect not only the people who live here but the people who are passing through.”

Garcia is confident that his department, his firefighters and EMTs have earned the public’s trust and are known to be willing and capable to do what’s expected of them.

“We have people who are responsive who are committed to our community,” Garcia said. “We want to help. We want to make sure people are safe. The majority of us want to do this. This is a way of life. This is what we do.”


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.