Española Mayor Javier Sanchez formally announced a plan to split the Police Department and the Fire Department at the June 11 city council meeting, although no one can say how the two departments became one in the first place.
Currently the police and fire departments are overseen by the director of public safety, a title that has been used interchangeably with police chief. Under that position is a deputy police chief and a deputy fire chief.
“I did a bit of research on this and it was confirmed by the city clerk,” City Attorney A.J. Salazar said during the meeting. “Somewhere along the line between 2000 and 2001, the previous administrations created the Director of Public Safety position. That was neither done by city ordinance or by city resolution.”
Despite Salazar’s comments, previous city salary lists show a fire chief in city salaries as late as 2012.
The change seems to have occurred when Stephen Branch, who is listed in a 2012 salary schedule article as fire chief, was named as the interim police chief. The following year, in 2013, there is no fire chief position in the salary listing, and Eric Garcia is listed as the Public Safety Director for the first time.
Regardless of how or when the change happened, Sanchez said it is time to give the Fire Department autonomy from the Police Department.
“I’d like to, let me recognize one thing,” Sanchez said in an interview June 14. “That fire department is a hell of a fire department in that they know how to manage themselves, they take pride in themselves and they’re very good at their own structure.”
The Española Firefighters Union IAFF Local 4339 supported Sanchez during his 2018 campaign for mayor. The Union also supported Councilor John Ricci and Councilor Justin Salazar-Torres.
He said the first step to splitting the departments will be to create a new organizational chart. After that, the city will have to address the budget, and determine what money should be allocated for which department.
“So we are working on the budget to determine how we will focus each of the chiefs on each of the departments,” Sanchez said.
He said he asked Salazar if there were any previous ordinances or other resolutions that would need to be reviewed or modified to make the change.
At the moment, Sanchez said he’s unsure exactly how splitting the departments will work, but that he expects the appointment of a new chief to follow the same process as that of the police chief.
“No matter what, the mayor will name an appointment and then expect hopeful ratification from the council,” Sanchez said.
He said part of the changes may affect the budget, and that he is reviewing the services the Fire Department can provide as well.
“(The) city manager and I talked a little bit, and I know that a couple of the union guys and I have spoken about bringing on ambulance as well,” Sanchez said. “I know that in the past people’s fear was the liability. We have liability anyway.”
He said the Española Hospital is not sufficient in regard to the amount of ambulance service it can provide, because it has a large service area. That doesn’t necessarily mean ambulance service is on the horizon for the Fire Department, but it is being considered.
He said for now, he is working with City Manager David Valdez to bring the changes before council and have the split made official.