Valencia County commissioners unanimous approved a proposal from the county fire chief to consolidate three fire districts into one.

Chief Brian Culp requested the Valencia-El Cerro, Meadow Lake and Manzano Vista fire districts be consolidated into one large district — the Valencia del Norte fire district.

“We are doing this for the same reason we did this with the Los Chavez and Highland Meadows districts two years ago,” Culp said. “We continue to try to find ways to bring in additional volunteers.”

It takes almost a full year to train a volunteer to the level of Firefighter I, the chief said, and about 45 percent of the volunteers in the county fire service come from outside the county.

Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp

“They come in and do shifts, unlike in the past where volunteers all lived in the district and could all respond to calls,” he said.

Consolidating the districts would also most likely improve the ISO rating, which directly effects insurance costs for property owners within a district.

Culp said in Dona Ana County there used to be 16 fire districts, with almost half of them rated a 10, the worst on the scale.

“They consolidated down to about four and went from a 10 to a five,” the chief said. “I’m not saying we would have problems in these districts when we go through ISO, but if we consolidate them into one, if there are any calls for fire or rescue in any of those areas, all three stations are called simultaneously.”

The consolidated district will have to be approved by the state fire marshal, Culp said.

New Mexico Finance Authority will also have to coordinate financial logistics for the three districts, since they all have fire trucks on a lease-purchase agreement paid by state funds.

“The final step is to call for an ISO evaluation after the consolidation,” he said. “The rating won’t change state funding; all three are main stations.”

The chief said an evaluation is planned tentatively for next month. The three districts have been operating together as one for the last eight months for trainings and call outs, he said.

The consolidation won’t eliminate any of the existing fire stations, apparatus or volunteers, Culp said. With the two consolidations, the other two stand-alone districts in the county are Tomé-Adelino, which has its main station in the valley on N.M. 47 and a substation on Manzano Expressway near Las Maravillas subdivision and Jarales, which has one station.

Commissioner Charles Eaton asked if Culp envisioned further consolidation. The chief said that was unlikely.

“My thought isn’t to do any more combining but to add stations,” he said. “There are still areas of concern in San Clemente and on Belen’s west mesa, which still need a substations.”

Both districts have areas that are at an ISO 10 due to the distance from the main station.

Culp said the department is seeing turnover of volunteers every three to four years, where in the past they would stay about eight years.

“In the last three years, we haven’t lost any volunteers in terms of overall numbers but we haven’t gained,” he said. “If we’ve lost 20 in a year, we’ve gained 20 in a year.”

Eaton asked if the department hasn’t lost numbers, what was the last of response.

“Why are we not getting a response from them in terms of calls,” Eaton asked.

Culp said the lack of volunteers isn’t a new issue in the county or the nation.

“We have around 100 volunteers and 55 of them are in the county,” he said. “Some might be support staff, like the chaplain, or life members, and that drops the number of people in county able to volunteer.”

Eaton said he would like to a comprehensive study of where the department is going, in terms of need.

“I saw this number years ago and brought the initial career staff onboard and I don’t think it’s grown a lot,” the commissioner said. “The county and call volume has grown. It’s pretty evident with the lack of volunteers and consolidation, we are still having staffing issues.

“This board is going to have to face the harsh reality that the career staff has to grow to meet call volume.”

Culp said his staff is currently doing a manpower study and making plans for the future needs of the department.

“That is something we are going to bring to the board during the budget process,” the chief said. “We are going to give some realistic numbers on the possibility of growing the career staff. We are never going to get to a place where we are able to staff every station. That would take up the general fund, but to maintain what is the national standard in terms of staff, we will be presenting that for budget purposes.”

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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.