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FIREFIGHTERS QUIT: BOSSES UNQUALIFIED?

     

Thursday, December 20, 2012 These days, people who live in the northwest corner of New Mexico's Torrance County who experience a fire and call 911 for help may find themselves less than satisfied — maybe even devastated — by the response.

Fire District 2's only two certified firefighters have recently quit or been fired, leaving the area west and immediately southwest of Moriarty without an effective fire response team.

One fireman, Russell Green, recently turned in his equipment to County Manager Joy Ansley, citing untrained and unqualified commanders who create added danger for the men and women who volunteer to fight fires. He specifically pointed a finger at the chiefs of Districts 2 and 5, Cheryl Hamm and John Perea, respectively, who he said "do not possess the training or physical ability to be in command of incidents such as structure fires."

District 5 stretches across northeastern Torrance County and includes Moriarty.
A person with Firefighter 1 certification has completed basic training in the understanding of fighting fires and the skills needed to function as a member of a firefighting team in hazardous conditions. Hamm has completed some of the requirements for Firefighter 1, but not all. Perea is certified as Firefighter 1.
Until earlier this month, Green volunteered in District 2, hence most of his criticism is directed toward Hamm. He said he volunteers only because he wants to help his community, adding that over the years he has never received nor has he ever expected a dime for his service. However, he noted in a resignation letter that Ansley said she has not received, "the most important part of volunteering is to make sure I go home safe at the end of each call."

Hamm, reached by telephone, had no comment other than to direct calls to Fire Marshal Jason Trumbull.

At a Torrance County Commission meeting in April, however, she spoke of the "extreme dedication of volunteers," adding: "I'm so proud of all our volunteers and I cannot express enough their investment and commitment for their community. They have not failed in one thing they've been asked to do."

In an email, drafted after discussing the situation with Hamm and Trumbull, Ansley responded to several questions posed by the Telegraph. She said she stands by Hamm.
"Chief Hamm is an excellent administrative chief and she has completed all of firefighter one classroom and written exams. She has not completed the physical agility requirements due to a physical disability/injury that she is currently being rehabilitated for and plans on completing firefighter one when her rehabilitation is completed. Therefore we have do not have plans to remove her as chief."
Safety concerns

Green has argued that Hamm is physically incapable of assuming control at the scene of a fire. An incident commander must be able to view the entire picture and relay crucial information to firefighters who may be inside a burning building, he said. Those firefighters would have an extremely limited perspective of the bigger event.
That means the person in charge, if necessary, must be able to run around a burning structure to fully grasp the extent of the danger and be knowledgeable enough to make split-second and perhaps life-saving, decisions.

Hamm, who walks with a cane, cannot do any of that, Green said. The result is that the firefighters inside the building are placed at an increased risk of danger, especially if a burning building were to collapse.

"Everything about this situation is dangerous," he said.
In his resignation letter, Green accused Hamm of being "openly antagonistic toward the firefighters and officers of Santa Fe County Fire (which) is of immense importance to the firefighting capability of Torrance County." Because of a lack of trained firefighters in District 2, it "desperately needs the assistance of neighboring fire departments," he said.
He reiterated these charges in subsequent interviews. In one, he cited an incident in which he — arriving at the scene before the department leaders — had taken command of battling a structure fire. Santa Fe County firefighters were also on hand.
Before Hamm even arrived at the scene, he said, she was on the phone giving orders. When she got to the fire, she began arguing with the Santa Fe County firefighters, prompting them to leave.

"At a fire scene, you can't have people arguing over who is in charge," Green said. "That's why you have an incident commander. You have to maintain a good working relationship with people who are going to help you."

Hamm, he said, has managed to degrade that relationship to such a degree that other departments don't want anything to do with District 2, even on medical calls. "The relationship is completely destroyed and we can't afford that," he said.
Ansley, however, said she is not aware of any issues with either the Santa Fe or Edgewood fire departments at this time.

"As with all volunteer fire departments, the responses from the volunteers are on a 'when available' basis and most do not have scheduled shifts," she said in her email. "When there is no one available to respond from one department, other district departments are immediately sent. Automatic aid is utilized as a common practice for most types of fires in the county due to un-surety of response.
"We have not seen a change in responses in the District 2 area in the past 30 days," she said.

Lack of leadership?

Green, 45, lives in Edgewood and works as a paramedic in Las Vegas, N.M. He has served as a volunteer firefighter since starting out in Las Cruces six or seven years ago, he said. He was a volunteer in District 2 for about a year.

Another incident that he said paints a telling picture of problems with the commanders' lack of leadership skills occurred at a brush fire near Mountainair last summer. A firefighter whom he called "a kid" (the young man was 18 or 19) was completely forgotten and left out all night by himself, Green said.

"That, to me, shows a complete and total failure of the leadership staff," he said. "How do you forget about one of your crew members and leave them out all night?"
In yet another incident, a former District 2 volunteer driving a fire engine was speeding, recklessly, at about 70 mph on Lexco Road to answer a call on Interstate 40. Green was in the back of the vehicle, "scared for my life," he recalled. Later, when he complained to Hamm, he said he was told, "Well, no one in this department would do something like that."

The district's only other certified Firefighter 1, Don Massey, has been ordered to turn in his equipment, "due to allegedly 'not responding to calls,' " Green said in his letter. Massey could not be reached for comment.

"What does this mean for the residents of Torrance County?" Green asked. "If your house is on fire, there will not be a single firefighter from District 2 with the training to enter your home and effectively extinguish the fire, and the mutual aid departments whose assistance is of vital importance may not show up either. Thus the residents … can expect to have serious damage or complete destruction of their homes in the event of a fire."

A need for volunteers

Asked how the county will replace Green and Massey, Ansley replied in her email: "It is very unfortunate to lose any volunteer. It is especially unfortunate to lose a trained volunteer; one who the County has invested time and money in for training. We face daily challenges operating a functional volunteer department. We have one paid firefighter; the Fire Marshal. All other responders are strictly volunteer …

"The County has rules that must be adhered to; so if a volunteer doesn't put in the time to continue to train, attend department meetings or meet the response criteria, they are no longer eligible to volunteer," she wrote.

"It is a difficult task to maintain a group who are willing to volunteer their personal and/or family time and put themselves in harm's way, to defend our homes and properties," Ansley continued. "Torrance County is constantly trying new and innovative ideas to recruit new volunteers and will continue to do so aggressively."

Green said the county manager seemed surprised by several of the issues he raised when he handed in his gear, particularly those regarding safety. But, he said, he knows Torrance County is in a tough position.

"With such a limited pool from which to recruit, you can't afford to run people off unless there are serious problems," he said. "There's not a huge rush of people in line to be chief."

Green said he doesn't have an ax to grind, nor does he want the chief's position.
"You want the person with the highest level of training to manage and mitigate an incident," he said. "When you get so hung up on being in charge that you can't allow someone else to be in charge, that's when people get hurt."


 


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