The constantly changing roster of firefighters and emergency technicians in Valencia County has left one county fire district in desperate need of volunteers.
The Rio Grande Estates Fire Department in Rio Communities is currently working with only an eight-person crew that includes two people certified to respond to medical rescue calls. L. E. Rubin, who was appointed as the new fire chief two weeks ago, said it’s almost impossible to run the department with that few volunteers.
“We are probably getting between 80 to 100 rescue calls a month,” Rubin said. “I don’t know what the rest of the county is doing, but we are the, if not one of the … busiest rescue districts in the county.”
Rubin, who is a registered nurse, and Lt. Brad Newman are the only volunteers on the department who can respond when someone needs medical attention. With only two people allowed to run rescue, the new fire chief is afraid community members will be the ones who will ultimately suffer.
Because there are times when the department doesn’t have someone readily available to respond to calls, it is having to call for mutual aid from neighboring departments.
Valencia County Deputy Fire Marshal Charles Eaton said the problems being experienced at the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department hold true county-wide.
He said several other departments depend on mutual aid because there just aren’t enough volunteers.
“We have a tendency where (calls in) any particular area in the county will peak and then drop off,” Eaton said. “Los Chavez (fire department) is now at a level where they can handle the majority of their own calls. But, three or four months ago, they were hurting.”
Eaton said the fire departments are most in need of volunteers who can work between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
He said it’s hard to find people to respond to calls during that time because most folks are at work then.
There are about 200 volunteer fire and rescue personnel in Valencia County, Eaton said. But the number of people wanting to donate their time and skills to the fire departments continues to fluctuate.
“It’s not only a local trend, it’s a national problem,” Eaton said. “Volunteer programs across the country are really going down because people are busy with working one or two jobs and spending time with their families.”
Finding time to volunteer at the fire department is not a problem for Lt. David Millar. With only a year at the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department, he’s climbed the ladder by spending hour upon hour at the station and responding to calls.
“I work generally from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I come and run the department from 4 o’clock on,” Millar said. “I don’t have a family and I’m single — that’s how I find time. I don’t have any other responsibilities other than myself.”
Millar knows he’s one of a few who can spend the time to volunteer that many hours. He said he doesn’t volunteer for financial rewards or the glory — he volunteers for the pure enjoyment of helping out.
“There’s no financial reward in this,” Millar said. “For me, I enjoy doing it. I enjoy giving back to the community, and I don’t ever have any problem with that. I walk away from a scene and I feel good about it. That’s why I’m here.”
Rubin said he hopes more people with Millar’s viewpoint will think about joining the local fire department. He said he needs people who will dedicate their time to help.
While the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department is trying to recruit more volunteers, it is also preparing for a review from the Insurance Standard Organization (ISO). The ISO is a national organization that rates every fire department in the country.
The rating a fire department receives determines what homeowners pay for fire insurance. Even though ISO usually evaluates and rates a fire department every 10 to 12 years, it’s been about 17 years since Rio Grande Estates Fire Department’s last rating.
“We’re currently preparing for their visit within the next six months,” Rubin said. “We’re getting all our documents in order, and, I believe we’re in pretty good shape, but there are some things that we still need to do.”
Eaton, who is helping Rubin prepare for the upcoming evaluation, said that, with proper planning, the fire department can meet the requirements. Some of the items the ISO looks at are the fire and rescue trucks, equipment and the personnel’s level of training.
Every department receives a rating between one and 10, with 10 being the worst rating a department can receive. The Rio Grande Estates Fire Department currently holds a seven rating.
“We’re striving to maintain that seven and possibly improve it,” Eaton said. “If we can improve that number, the savings will ultimately be passed on to the homeowners, with lower insurance premiums.”
Both Rubin and Eaton are anxious about how the fact that there are only eight volunteers in the department will affect the department’s rating.
“Your numbers do count,” Eaton said. “The amount of training also has a great impact on the rating.”
Rubin hopes to enlist 20 to 30 people into the fire department, with at least eight who will be willing to take training on the rescue side of the department.
“We just need to get the word out to the community that we need people who are willing to dedicate some time to this,” he said. “I believe there are people out there who are willing to dedicate themselves, but they may not be aware we are in need of help.”
The fire chief hopes the community will come to the aid of the department just as they have volunteered their assistance to the community. He said the volunteers are not only assuring the safety of the lives and the property of the community, they are helping lower the cost of fire insurance for homeowners.
“We don’t live in a community where there is paid fire service,” he said. “This county is a poor county, and we don’t have the kind of money to support all these fire districts. If the community is not willing to put forth the volunteers to support it, then they will leave themselves vulnerable to the loss of life and property.”
Rubin said the majority of volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel have left because they were simply “burned out” with the number of calls they were left to handle. He said that, when there are just a few people handling call after call on a daily basis, it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed.
If anyone wants to volunteer at the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department, call the fire chief at 864-6161 or leave a message at 857-3800. People are also welcomed to stop by the fire department on Rio Communities Boulevard.
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.