Fire Department Wickersham

Española Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief John Wickersham puts on his gear Jan. 7 before going into a fire in a home on Roman Drive, on Española's west side. Neighbors said the fire was caused by a pellet stove. Several volunteer agencies responded and the fire was contained quickly. 

The Española Fire Department is short-staffed, according to Fire Chief Ron Padilla and Union President Zack Logsdon, which could lead to delays in fire and emergency services. 

During the public comment portion of the Dec. 14 Española City Council meeting, Padilla described two days in early December in which the department handled several car crashes, emergency calls, aid to Santa Fe County and deadly structure fires on “minimal staffing.”

“I can sit here and tell you every day, ‘I need more people, I need more people,’” Padilla said at that meeting. “I’m not going to tell you ‘I need more people.’ What I’m going to tell you is what I can provide, and this is what we can provide. People are going to wait because we are on calls, and it’s unfortunate.”

After Padilla, Española Firefighters Union Local 4339 President Zack Logsdon also spoke, imploring the Council to rectify the “critically low staffing issue” at the Department. Logsdon claimed the department is being forced to break protocol, operating with staffing below the minimum standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. 

“Not having the staffing is putting us in a hard situation with our lives and/or a patient’s life,” Logsdon said. 

Logsdon told councilors the department should have 10 paid firefighters on every day. Currently, the Department staffs four each day.

On a phone call, Padilla said the cause of this problem, frankly, is a lack of funding, although COVID has been affecting staffing as well. 

“What we’ve seen throughout the years is fire, EMS, law enforcement — people don’t want to do this job anymore,” Padilla said. “But some people really do have a passion for it. It’s a tough job.” 

Apart from delays in services, Padilla said there is also a trickle-down effect to low staffing at the Department, wearing out the few firefighters they have. 

“When we’re on one call and there’s not enough response, there’s going to be some wait times. We prioritize those wait times, but also, when you have more staff, people aren’t as run-down,” he said. 

The Department is currently running with 15 firefighters. 

Padilla would like to hire three firefighters each year for the next five years, hopefully with help from grants and revenue from creating other programs like an inspection division. 

“We understand that we’re a smaller town,” he said, “but our infrastructure is growing, and we need to start growing our staffing levels.” 

Nearby departments like Los Alamos and Santa Fe offer better pay and working conditions that can make it difficult for Española to compete.

Logsdon said that even if the department recruits more firefighters, it needs more space to house them. 

“We hope we’re on the priority list for capital outlay to get a new station built, or add-on,” Logsdon said. “There are options. We need to get the housing before we get the staffing.” 

Logsdon echoed Padilla’s hope for three new hires every year for five years. He also said that, at minimum, the department should be staffed with one more firefighter each day. 

“I believe Chief Padilla, Assistant Chief Wickersham and Mayor Sánchez will rectify these problems,” he said. “I believe they see the need, we just need to put a plan in place.”

Logsdon commended Mayor Javier Sánchez for playing an important role in helping the union secure their last contract, which raised starting pay from $9.73 per hour to $13.65, but he said, to recruit and retain more firefighters, they need another 10 to 15 percent increase. Their next contract negotiation is in 2023.

Mayor Sánchez said economic development is the big-picture answer. 

“Structurally, the city has challenges regarding staffing,” Sánchez said. “We need to improve our economic development to stimulate our tax base. At the same time, we have to protect and keep the good workers we have, and it’s not easy to balance those needs. We realize that many of our staff are not paid enough.”

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