Over a year ago the Torrance County Fire Department moved from an all-volunteer crew to having four paid crew members, and last month the county implemented a “hybrid system” as backup for the volunteers.
Torrance County Fire Chief Don Dirks said the first week of February the county started “implementing ideas and gathering people.”
According to Dirks, he and three firefighter EMTs are the paid crew.
He said the county currently has 45 active volunteers that help provide coverage to the county and an influx of new applications puts them about 60 to 75 potential volunteers.
He said right now the paid fire crew is working from the center of the county: District 3 at the main station next to dispatch in McIntosh.
Dirks said because the population has grown there are areas with more call volume, and volunteers alone can’t handle the volume on a daily basis because most of them also have jobs.
He said first responders are the people who live the closest to the incident, but if they are not available for whatever reason, dispatch takes over and sends in help. He said if there aren’t enough people to respond in an area the paid crew are standing by.
He said all the fire stations are manned by volunteers that are on call with “e-dispatch,” which is an emergency call through an app on everyone’s phone which alerts all the volunteers.
He said they also have a stipend system to compensate volunteers for their time and gas when they respond to a call. The fire call stipend is $15, which they only get after meeting all there county’s training requirements and after completing the six month probationary period.
The county provides training, certifications and incentives to all the volunteers all the way up the EMT level.
Dirk said the county is always looking for volunteers. Anyone who is interested can get an application online at torrancecountynm.gov. The county does a background check and then arranges a meeting with the applicant.
All qualified applicants then get placed in the districts that are most appropriate and a meeting with the district chief is arranged. After the probationary period and training, the volunteers can qualify for the stipend.
Deputy County Manager Philip Tenorio said the county “upped the per diem from $50,000 to $80,000” a month ago. He also said the county incentivizes the volunteers in other ways like offering them access to not only certification but access to “state-of-the-art equipment, like the new ladder truck.”
Commissioner Ryan Schwebach said financially, the county needs a hybrid model, because it “can’t afford a full-time model.” He said the cost of the salary, equipment, housing, etc., the overall cost comes in at about $75,000 a year for each full-time employee. He said the county is looking at adding staff incrementally, with one and half to two full time employees, a “half” an existing employee who would work 20 hours of their work week on-call as an EMT.
He said a full complement crew is in the works and in the next few months the commission will be working on a project but couldn’t speak to any specific details, adding, “They [county commissioners] are committed to growing and strengthening the fire department.”
He said the county gets money from various places including the State Fire Marshal and grants. Salaries of the EMTs would be coming from the general fund.
Schwebach said the county has had an increase in revenue, which includes a “temporary influx” from the wind farms and the PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) payments “are becoming reliable.”
Schwebach said response time in the southern part of the county is “lacking” in places south of McIntosh like Estancia, Encino, Torreón, Tajique and Willard. He said the main focus will be to “beef that up,” adding, “I don’t know what that will look like just yet. We aren’t Bernalillo County or Santa Fe County.”
He said the county is also committed to continuing supporting its volunteers. “We ask them to do a tough job and we truly appreciate them.”
He said the county will be starting budgetary meetings soon where they will be looking over the budget to see where there are needs and decide where expansions need to happen.
Taking the department from all-volunteer to paid will take time, officials said, but they don’t yet have an estimate for how long it will take to fully staff a paid fire department.