Volunteer firefighters in La Madera feel blindsided by a move that the Sandoval Fire Chief says will provide better emergency services to the area.

Sandoval County will vote today, May 21, at 5 p.m., on an agreement between Sandoval and Bernalillo counties that would transfer responsibility for fire protection and emergency services to Bernalillo County in La Madera.

The meeting will be live-streamed on the Sandoval County website.

Volunteers feel like they have been left out of the process, finding out about the agreement on May 14 via an email from Sandoval County Fire Chief Eric Masterson.

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 whats 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 informs volunteers that “the roles you provide will change,” but offers 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 the La Madera area didn’t have the best emergency services that the area could offer.

Due to the effects of COVID-19 to the area, 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 include phone calls from one station to another. Masterson said that adds five or six minutes to the response time.

The proposed agreement would make 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.

Bernalillo County does not plan to add a new staff to the La Madera station, Perez said. Bernalillo County would maintain the building and equipment and add the area into its regular patrol area during fire season.

Bernalillo County has two additional brush trucks this year, and is including the La Madera area in its patrols, Perez said.

Emergency calls would be responded to by Station 46, on Frost Road, which has been the major partner of La Madera for over 20 years under the mutual aid agreement, Perez said.

Perez said the response time of the station to La Madera is approximately 15 minutes. There are five staff onsite 24 hours a day and the capacity to call in as many as 20 more staff to help if needed, Perez said. Those crews all contain paramedics, EMTs and firefighters.

During a teleconference meeting on May 20 hosted by the Bernalillo County Fire Department, volunteer firefighters from the La Madera station and local residents expressed anger and frustration at the way Masterson handled the situation.

One woman said she had suffered a heart attack and the response time of five minutes from the La Madera fire department saved her life. She said she called 911 and Bernalillo County was there within 15 minutes, which would have been the difference between life and death for her.

Volunteer firefighters who spoke at the May 20 meeting were upset and spoke passionately about how they felt like Sandoval County was making a mistake, and getting rid of a valuable asset and the expertise of the crew in terms of knowing and living in the area.

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.

Perez said Bernalillo County does not plan to take out any equipment or dismantle the fire station. The volunteers have been encouraged to volunteer through Sandoval County wildland fire teams or CERT (Community Emergency Response Team).

“We don’t even know what being on the wildland fire team means,” said one of La Madera’s volunteers. “I am concerned I will be sent out to other fires, away from my home. I joined the fire department because I live in the community and I wanted to be there to help with fire, medical emergencies and wildfires.”

“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.”

The meeting will stream online at 5 p.m. May 21 at sandovalcountynm.gov/commission/sandoval-county-meeting-videos/. Public comments can be submitted online at sandovalcountynm.gov/commission/public-comment/ or by calling Steven Montoya at 505-382-2753. The public can also submit questions or concerns to the District 1 County Commissioner at kbruch@sandovalcountynm.gov or by calling 505-235-5623.