BELEN—In the 20 years Manny Garcia has devoted to the fire service, he has helped countless people while making sure the community his safe.

After Friday, he will no longer carry the badge of Belen’s fire chief and will no longer answer calls for service. His time has come to retire and, at 38 years old, make a new life for himself.

Garcia began his fire service career as a junior firefighter at Rio Grande Estates Fire Department when he was a high school freshman. He then began volunteering at the Belen Fire Department while working as a 911 operator. He was eventually hired on as a career firefighter in the Hub City, and was appointed chief in 2007.

To be able to retire, he purchased 11 months of service credit from PERA.

“I had some self reflection, and where things are at currently and where things could be down the road, and I just came to the realization that this is the time for me to go,” Garcia said. “With all the time I’ve put in, and the accomplishments we’ve achieved and everything I’ve set out for us to do, we’ve done it.”

Some of the accomplishments Garcia is most proud of includes:

• Increased the volunteer firefighter stipend from $7.50 to $12 per call;

• Established a fire substation at the Belen Alexander Airport, and classified the eastside substation as a main station;

• Adopted a fire code;

• Purchased two new medical units, a new wildland/brush truck and a pumper/tanker;

• Established benchmarks for professional development;

• All career personnel have achieved IFSAC Firefighter Level II

• Implemented a modern career firefighter work schedule

• Improved the city’s Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating from a Class 5 to a Class 4

• With support of taxpayers, built a spacious and modern main fire station.

Garcia had applied for at least three federal grants for a new fire station, but was denied all three times. He said there was a lot of competition for grants across the nation.

“For a small department in a small community like ours, its a very arduous process,” the chief said of the grant process. “We were never awarded … but we never gave up.”

Garcia said he is very grateful for the taxpayers to have approved a $4 million GO bond to build the new fire station.

“It was not a given, because we’re all overtaxed, and people asked why they had to support it,” he said. “Even though it was approved overwhelmingly, we were still questioned. I fought those good fights to get people to vote for it.

“I’m elated with this new building,” he said. “It’s kind of like my Super Bowl trophy before I leave. It was needed not only because of the space but for the health of the firefighters. Anyone who stepped into the old building knows how much this was needed — not just for our town, but for our personnel and our equipment.”

Leaving the fire service is bitter sweet. Garcia had been thinking about retiring for a few years, knowing the time was soon to come.

“My good years are behind me,” the chief said. “I’ve been here long enough. If you really capture the last 12 years I’ve been chief, it’s time for something new.

“The department needs a new face, and I appreciate all the support I’ve gotten from the community, from our firefighters,” he said. “I came to the realization that it’s time to leave.”

Garcia said he wants the fire department to move into the future on the progressive foundation he’s laid down.

“We’ve been through ups and downs, smiles and frowns, but I’d rather leave on a high note,” he said.

Garcia, who is appointed, served under three mayors, seven city councils and five city managers.

He remembers the day when he decided he wanted to make a difference in his community. Garcia had already been volunteering as an umpire for the Belen Little League but wanted to do more.

“The Oklahoma City bombing happened in April of that year, and I can just remember all the chaos and trauma,” he said. “I told myself, ‘How can I be that person to go help?’

“I came here first, but they didn’t have a junior firefighter program,” he said. “So I went to Rio Grande Estates. That was supposed to be the door that opened. Since then, things progressed to the next. I remember Lenore Pena took me to my first EMS conference.”

Garcia has seen a lot — good and bad — in his time as a firefighter. But he says the best part of his job as always been the people he’s worked with.

“The fire service is made up of the best people,” he said. “They’re wonderful. It takes a lot of guts to do this type of work, and a lot of people in our community takes the fire service for granted because they know when they call us, we’ll be there.”

The chief said there are a lot of moving parts to be ready to answer that call, and its made up of very dedicated and passionate people.

“I would put them against anyone in this state to do the job that they do,” he said.

Some of the most memorable calls he remembers include the April 2011 Del Rio Plaza fire, which he says has been the largest fire he’s ever experienced as a firefighter.

“The other thing I’m very fortunate of is our firefighters have never had a major illness or injury during my tenure, and we’ve never had a fire death as my time as chief,” he said.

While Garcia has many fond memories of his time in the fire service, there are other tragic moments he’d soon hope to forget.

“The worst thing I’ve ever done as a firefighter or as a chief is tell someone that their loved one has died,” he said. “How do you communicate to a loved one? It’s very hard.”

Another memory he’s cherished is when he was deployed as part of a support team to Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. He was able to meet a lot of people and do a lot of good work.

The best part of being a firefighter for Garcia is the outreach he’s been able to do in the community, learning who is in the community and letting them learn about the fire service.

“The kids will come to the fire station, get to see the trucks, get their red plastic firefighter hat and they learn about fire safety,” he said. “They take all the information home and tell their parents. It’s great when we see the parents at the store and they tell you what the child said and they’re buying a smoke detector. That outreach is very positive and it works.”

While he’s accomplished a lot, he wished he was able to acquire and retain more volunteers. With only about 12 volunteer firefighters, he says it’s a county-wide, and even nation-wide, problem.

There have also been a lot of people who have helped Garcia along the way, including former RGEFD Chief Elliot Hogue, and his wife, Eva, who opened the door for Garcia as a junior firefighter. He also credits former chief Wayne Gallegos for providing him opportunities at the Belen Fire Department, Zach Romero, the former emergency manager at the Los Lunas Fire Department, and Don Scott, a former emergency manager in Bernalillo County.

“I was taught to be very community oriented,” he said. “The people have to trust you. The hardest thing to earn is public trust and it’s the easiest thing to lose. As a public official, you’re the head of the department and you have to carry yourself in a certain manner because people will see you who you are really quick.”

He also credits his upbringing and his parents, Manny Sr. and the late Dora Garcia, for teaching him a strong work ethic.

“I’m very social , I’m very respectful to people, I take the time to talk to people and shake hands and give people hugs,” he said.

Garcia will now take time off to decompress, relax and figure out what he wants to do next. He did say that while he says goodbye to the fire service, his name might one day end up on an election ballot.

“Even though Dec. 28 is my last day in public safety, Dec. 29 starts the first day of the rest of my life,” he said. “Even though I say goodbye as a public safety official, I don’t think my public service is done. I do see myself in public office position. I don’t know which one, I’m still thinking about it.

“I’m excited for the next chapter in my life, and time will tell.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.