When he was 8 years old, Matt Propp remembers watching the fire truck turn off Coors Boulevard after he’d called 911 because his friend accidentally set a bush on fire and ran away.
“I remember watching the fire truck make the turn … coming down our street and just thinking, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ They had their gear on, pulled the hose, put the fire out. When I’m 8, this seems like this huge fire, right,” Propp says with a laugh. “For them, it’s just a bush on fire.”
After the minor conflagration was handled, the firefighters showed him the truck and invited him to come by the station. The next week, Propp biked over to the station and he hasn’t looked back.
Selected as the Valencia County fire chief last month, Propp has worked for the Corrales Fire Department, the Bernalillo County Fire Department and for Torrance County.
Propp, a paramedic, worked for a handful of ambulance services prior to taking the job in Corrales, a position he says was his first step in the door.
“I love that department. Great department, great people,” he said.
Newly married and looking to the future, Propp made the “kind of scary jump” to the much larger department in Bernalillo County in 2005. While there, Propp achieved the rank of lieutenant and was able to work in various roles in the department including the fire marshal’s office, the fire academy, special operations and hazmat.
“I got the opportunity to see very different departments but the same work ethic, the same compassion for people throughout,” he said. “The people in this profession … they just want to do good, want to help.”
Propp has also served as the emergency manager and acting fire chief for Torrance County since April 2019.
Building connections, partnerships
Propp says he wants to work to make connections and partnerships with local schools, to give youth interested in a career in public safety a way in. Doing that also serves a need in the Valencia County department and departments across the country.
“Everyone’s fighting for staff. It’s not just career staff — it’s volunteers, too,” Propp said. “These are people in our community who devote a ton of time and a ton of their life to doing this.
“You look back 20 years ago and people would go to work and come home at five for dinner. They had time to volunteer. Nowadays, people are working two and three jobs. It’s not that people don’t have the heart to do it. They’re trying to put family first, and family should always come first. Because of that, it has a rippling effect on us.”
Propp said he wants to grow the number of volunteers in the department, as well as career staff, by making sure they have what they need.
“What can we do to help you? Do you need training? Gear? All the way to what our stipend programs look like, we need to make sure people have what they need,” he said.
The county fire department handles 300 to 400 calls a month, numbers similar to larger departments in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, Propp said.
“I think folks maybe don’t realize how busy the department is,” he said. “We’re staying up with the bigger stations with a more limited workforce.”
Currently, the county has 10 full-time career staff in the field and a command staff of five positions, including the chief, with one vacancy. The department’s career staff recently switched from 12-hour shifts to 48-hour shifts — two days on, four off — which allows for 24/7 coverage, the chief said. Right now, personnel are stationed at El Cerro Mission Fire Station.
Propp said there are two vacant career positions and once they are filled, the department will have crews stationed in El Cerro and Los Chavez fire stations, so there’s coverage on both sides of the river.
“I want to hire the two additional people as soon as possible but we’re in competition with everybody right now,” he said. “My hope is this is a career for them and because of that, I want to make sure the person that’s responding to your emergency is the right person.”
The county also recently applied for a FEMA-backed SAFER grant — Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — which pays a firefighter’s salary and benefits for three years, then the agency takes on the cost.
“During those three years, we have to come up with a plan for how to sustain the positions,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is bring somebody on and not be able to sustain them.”
Command staff professional, an asset
While Propp isn’t the first “new” county fire chief hired in the last decade or so, he might be the first to compete for the job against the majority of the department’s existing command staff.
Deputy Chief Casey Davis and Assistant Chiefs Jaime Gonzales and Nicholas Moya threw their helmets into the ring in a bid to climb the ladder. During a first round of applications, Wildland Capt. Rob Barr also applied for the chief position.
Since his hire, Propp said they’ve been nothing but professional.
“I think everybody clicked really well. All of them have been super supportive. There hasn’t been any head-butting or animosity, and that speaks to the professionalism of the staff,” he said. “Everybody that’s here is looking to do better for the agency and for the community. At the same time, they have the understanding that I support them 100 percent.
“They really have the tempo of the department; they’re an asset to the department and they’re an asset to me as a new chief coming into a new agency. I feel really lucky getting them.”
Moya also applied for the fire chief position with the city of Belen, which he took last month. Propp said he hated to see Moya go, but feels the move gives the county “a great partner next door. I think regionally, a big thing is for all of us to work together. We’re all resource depleted. How do we help each other?
“The agencies around us have been those partners that just step up. We’ve made a call and they have been there to help. My goal is to make sure we’re that reliable resource for them too. When you need help, we’re gonna be there.”
Propp also plans to work with the municipal departments to recruit personnel, saying while someone might not ultimately chose to work for the county, more firefighters helps the local fire and EMS system as a whole.
Plans and goals
Moving forward, Propp and the command staff are working to develop a strategic plan for the department, with one, three, five and 10 year goals — something the next chief can pick up and run with.
“I’m very aware, as a fire chief, my time could be limited. I’m a big believer in leaving things better than you found them,” he said. “I walked into a good department, to people who already put in a lot of work to grow this department. I’m excited to help continue that growth and maybe bring in some new ideas and new visions to help with that.”
Propp plans to develop a replacement strategy for the department’s fleet of vehicles, as many are reaching the end of life, as well as prioritizing work on stations throughout the county.
His approach to leading the department is to put himself at the bottom as a support to the men and women of the fire service.
“The people who make the most difference in this organization are the ones responding to your house when you call 911,” Propp said. “My job is to support them in any way I can — to make sure they have the right equipment, the right training, to provide the best service to the community. I have the ‘Matt’ vision of the fire department but this is really their agency.”
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.