At the Sept. 29 Rio Arriba County Commission meeting Fire Marshal Alfredo Montoya expressed concern over the lack of new volunteer firefighters.
Montoya in a Sept. 30 phone call said all of Rio Arriba’s fire departments are currently staffed and able to respond to calls, however, there is a dramatic decrease in new applications.
“Currently we are able to maintain and respond to the incidents that we do receive,” Montoya said. “However if we continue to see a decline in volunteerism it could effect the number of, or the time it takes to respond to these calls and we may have to rely on other volunteer fire districts for mutual.”
If things continue at this rate Montoya said there could be an increase in response times to calls in the future.
The County currently has 184 volunteer firefighters over 17 districts. Montoya said two years ago there would be about four applications to become a volunteer firefighter every six months, now over those same time periods they’re receiving one or two applications.
This is a statewide problem, not just an issue in Rio Arriba according to Montoya.
There was an attempt to pass House Bill 191 in the state legislature’s regular session this year that would increase the funding and benefits for volunteer fire departments.
Currently there are retirement plans for volunteers with 10 and 25 years of service.
Montoya said economic demands are one of the primary things he suspects for the lack of volunteers.
“I really believe that more and more families are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and most families have children,” Montoya said. “Those children are involved in sports activities. Those types of things I think impact the amount of volunteerism.”
Mitch Herrera, the volunteer fire chief for the Chamita Volunteer Department said in a Monday phone call that of his over 20 firefighter roster, he gets the same seven or eight responders on every call.
“A lot of the volunteers have a full-time job,” Herrera said.
Volunteer firefighters are required to maintain the same certifications and training as full-time firefighters Montoya said.
“Unfortunately as a volunteer in order to maintain those certification and maintain those certifications and stuff like that it often involves taking time out of their evenings or weekends to do those trainings” he said.
Herrera said there’s a baseline two hours a month training that every volunteer firefighter is required to do, but with additional training to fight in Wildlands, use ladders, perform CPR and Emergency Medical Services it can reach over 100 hours of training a year.
There is a lot of paperwork in running a volunteer fire department, Herrera said. Properly filing incident reports, applying for grants, ensuring the department has enough personal protective equipment is a full time job Herrera said.
“Me being retired definitely gives me the opportunity to do that work,” Herrera said. “Most of the departments that are in the red are the one who don’t have someone to do the paperwork”
“We are thankful for the volunteers we do have,” Montoya said. “A lot of times our volunteers go above and beyond. It’s really scary to think that without our volunteers there’s times that if we did not have our volunteers there’s no one that could respond so we are very thankful and lucky for the volunteers we do have.”
Herrera said he viewed firefighting as a calling, bragging about forging his ID at 16 so he could fight wildfires.
“It’s tough and recruiting volunteers is the hardest job because it’s got no compensation other than to be a good Samaritan.” Herrera said. “If you see a volunteer firefighter out there they want to be out there, it takes a lot of dedication”