The Sandoval County Commission voted today to remove an agenda item that would have turned over the La Madera fire station to Bernalillo County if approved. That means that the fire station will remain open and staffed by volunteers.
Describing it as “anticlimactic,” Sandoval county commissioner Jay Block spoke to The Independent after the meeting.
A public outcry from the La Madera area led to the shift in course, as it was Sandoval County’s Fire Chief who sought the change.
At a virtual meeting held May 20, volunteer firefighters and members of the public expressed their anger and frustration that they had been left out of the process, only finding out that their volunteer services were no longer required through an email May 14 from Fire Chief Eric Masterson, and that it would be voted on May 21.
Masterson initiated the process in February, but said that due to the coronavirus, it took a back burner until a few weeks ago.
“I would have really liked to see them just sit down and talk and explain what’s going on, rather than just voting on it,” said a volunteer firefighter in the La Madera station, who asked to remain anonymous. “The first we heard about this was May 14 via a memo email sent to all the volunteers.”
That memo informed volunteers that “the roles you provide will change,” but offered few specifics.
Masterson said in an interview with The Independent that he approached Bernalillo County Fire Chief Greg Perez in February about creating the agreement because he was concerned that La Madera didn’t have the best emergency services that the area could offer.
Due to coronavirus, getting the agreement written was put off and picked back up recently and completed without any public input or informing the volunteer crew, Masterson said.
Currently, the La Madera fire district is under a “gentlemen’s agreement” for mutual aid between Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, Perez said.
Perez explained that there are multiple ways the county can respond to emergencies and fire, which can include phone calls from one station to another. Masterson said that adds five or six minutes to the response time.
Masterson’s proposal would have made Bernalillo County responsible for the district, making any emergency call coming from the La Madera area automatically within its jurisdiction.
Both fire chiefs said the volunteer staff at La Madera don’t have the same level of training as the Bernalillo County Fire Department, which consists entirely of paid personnel.
During a virtual meeting on May 20 coordinated by Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, volunteer firefighters from the La Madera station and local residents expressed anger and frustration at the way Masterson handled the situation.
More than one person voiced frustration over not being allowed to participate in the creation of the agreement and because they were all informed a week before the vote through an email.
Perez said that because the Bernalillo County Fire Department jobs are paid positions and the county “does not have the means or mechanism for volunteers,” adding that there are liability issues for the county.
“There was definitely a failure in leadership on my part,” Masterson said. “I could have done community outreach. I should have done a meeting [with the volunteer firefighters]. I don’t know why I chose not to do that.”
He added, “I did drive up there last week and had an in person conversation with the battalion chief and the division chief and told them what was going to happen. I tried to present the facts and reasoning.”
Block said he is a friend of Masterson’s and believes he has the community’s best interest at heart, but said, “As a leader you have to communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.” He said he got dozens of emails from residents of the area. Pyskoty also said she got many emails from residents of the area as well.
Block said he expects to see some formalization of the agreement between the two counties, but added that he does not expect the proposal for Bernalillo County to take the La Madera station over “any time soon.”