New Mexico

Doña Ana County scrambles to staff fire departments; insurance skyrockets

Do-a Ana County Fire Department...

Doña Ana County officials say volunteer fire departments throughout the county are seriously understaffed, forcing residents' insurance rates to skyrocket.

"It isn't a lack of people showing up to the fires," said County Manager Fernando Macias. "Both career and volunteer firefighters are there responding to every fire. It's a question of the dynamics of the assessment of insurance risk."

Macias told commissioners that 6 out of the 16 fire districts in the county had less than four volunteer firefighters. 

"Expecting full time commitment out of the people only available in their spare time is an unfair burden to place on these volunteers," said Travis Simpson, president of the Doña Ana County Professional Firefighters' Association. "This responsibility should never be dependent on an individual's availability."

According to his association, there are 19 career fire staff in the county: 16 line staff, two fire prevention captains and one training captain. The rest are volunteers.

"We can't say, 'Do what you're told or you won't receive a paycheck,' said Fire Chief Nick Hempel. "Getting rid of a volunteer fire chief means getting rid of at least half of that volunteer department."

Retired Las Cruces Fire Chief Adolf Zubia said the lack of staffing hurts the area's economy.

"How can a county recruit new industry when it can't even provide basic fire and life safety protection to a third of the county?" Zubia asked commissioners.

Kassie Simpson, who lives in the north Valley, said she's worried about the response time if she or her children had an emergency.

"Why don't you guarantee that my kids are safe?" she asked commissioners. "This is unacceptable. Don't look my children in the eyes and say that this is good enough."

Commissioners were unable to pass a resolution that addresses the staffing, however they said they would revisit the issue at a later meeting.

"I just don't really want to hear an excuse," said Commissioner Isabella Solis, who represents district four. "I just want to hear how we're going to fix this."

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