Valencia County Commissioners unanimously approved the addition of four new paid positions for the county’s fire department, providing the state approves its budget later this summer.

Loretta Trujillo, the county’s finance director, said the state should give final budget approval in late August or early September. She added the department could begin advertising and interviewing for the positions with the caveat that they couldn’t hire anyone without the state’s approval of a budget adjustment to increase expenditures for the department.

At a recent commission meeting, VCFD Assistant Chief Nick Moya made the plea for the additional positions, presenting call for service numbers that have increased by more than 20 percent from 2019 to 2020.

The county hired four career staff members in 2008 after being a strictly all-volunteer department for decades. Moya said those four members were able to cover a typical work week.

In 2009, four additional career staff positions were added, which expanded the hours and days covered by county emergency services.

“The plan was to hire four more in 2010, but there were funding cuts so we are still at eight career field staff,” Moya said.

The eight career staff can cover eight-hour shifts in two units, but from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., calls fall to volunteers, he said.

“If they are available and able to respond, they do, but we need to provide adequate public safety,” he said.

Moya said the National Fire Protection Agency, which provides standards for staffing levels and response times, recommends a first-alarm house fire should have a minimum of at least 15 fire personnel on scene.

“The fire department is currently not meeting that standard. Each person has to take on a multitude of tasks (on scene), and if you don’t have enough people, you can’t properly rehab,” he said. “Ideally, you have someone go in for 20 minutes, then back out and rest. More often than not, we’re changing (oxygen) bottles out and running back in. We don’t have the resources.”

Another concern for the department is turn-out time — the time it takes fire personnel to leave the station from the first call out for the incident.

Moya said in an area the size of Valencia County, departments should hit a turn-out time of eight to nine minutes 90 percent of the time.

“We meet that less than 5 percent of the time. These are just the cold, hard facts,” he said.

In 2019, there were a total of 4,782 fire and EMS calls for service in the unincorporated parts of the county. Career staff answered about 2,623 calls, leaving about half the calls to be answered by volunteers.

Calls for service increased by 22 percent in 2020, and career staff were able to answer a little less than the 5,807 calls, Moya said.

“As a trend, calls go up and the amount of calls career staff can answer is going down,” he said. “Basically, we feel the community has outgrown staffing. If we were able to increase career staff by four, we could have 24-hour coverage.”

Moya said the department would like to add firefighters to the department in small numbers in the coming years, acknowledging the county’s budget couldn’t support a mass hiring.

“That way we can continue to grow the department. If we do nothing, residents are at risk and we risk increasing our ISO, which would mean higher insurance rates,” he said.

The department has a healthy amount of funding from the state fire fund, Moya said, but the money can only be used for operational costs, not salaries.

Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon asked if there was a good pool of applicants for the positions.

Interim Valencia County Fire Chief Casey Davis said when the Los Lunas Fire Department advertised three open positions, there were a dozen applicants.

“I think the pool out there is good. On the volunteer side, people are eager but a lot of them have no experience,” Davis said. “Something like this, there are criteria they have to meet to be looked at for a position.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.