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Volunteer firefighter numbers surge in Dona Ana County, critical need for more

Not too long ago, the volunteer ranks within the Doña Ana County Fire and Emergency Services Department were at a critical low. So low, that ratings related to affordability for homeowners’ insurance plummeted. Residents worried while county leaders planned.

“We overhauled the way we recruit volunteers, and we ramped up the frequency of our training academies,” explained Doña Ana County Fire Chief Nick Hempel. “And we saw our numbers increase by 25 percent.” The number of volunteers trained and ready to serve in the county is now over 300.

The process to become a volunteer firefighter is relatively simple. Interested applicants can submit a form online and then contact the station chief to set up a time to meet. After the applicant has had a chance to ask and answer some questions, they are given a tour of the station and usually meet some other members of Fire and Emergency Services. After the applicant clears a background check, they are fitted for uniforms and fire gear and can begin training.

It has helped that the number of paid staff also increased within the department. According to Hempel, there is currently 16 paid staff on rotating shifts and five staff officers. The county is also actively working to fill eight additional paid positions that will allow for round-the-clock coverage at two of the county fire stations – Anthony and Doña Ana, which historically receive a higher call volume and are geographically located to service a wider area of Doña Ana County. Having 24-hour staffing will also cut response times significantly, and will provide more opportunities for volunteers to run calls with more experienced firefighters and gain additional on-the-job knowledge.

“Numbers aside, our morale had improved significantly,” said Hempel, referring to overall job satisfaction among paid and volunteer staff. “Having more firefighters in the county, both paid and volunteer means having more boots on the ground arriving at critical incidents, like structure fires. It significantly improves safety, reduces injury and allows us to rotate our firefighters so we’re not exhausting them.”

Hempel says the county recently implemented a stipend program where volunteers can earn a nominal compensation twice a year, depending on the number of calls they respond to, training they attend, and shifts worked at the stations.

But it wasn’t the idea of being paid that lured Yesenia Castillo to apply with Doña Ana County as a volunteer. “A few of my friends are firefighters and they encouraged me to give it a try. Now that I’m about seven months into my training, I can say it’s the absolute best thing I’ve ever done.”

Castillo, 35, says volunteering with Doña Ana County Fire and Emergency Services is something she wished she had done sooner but enjoys the camaraderie among the paid staff and other volunteers.

“It’s like a family,” Castillo says of her fellow volunteers. “They push you and reassure you that you’re going to be just fine.

A single mom, Castillo says her kids, who are ages six and 10, think its “awesome” that their mom is a firefighter. “They love it,” she said. “And hopefully, with some additional training, I can apply for a paid position when it’s available. That’s the goal.”

Now that the county has boosted the ranks among volunteers, additional plans are in motion to upgrade several fire stations to better accommodate overnight shifts. Additional equipment will be added, training hours will be expanded, and Hempel says more continuing education opportunities will be made available to staff.

The bigger picture, however, will be preparing for critical incidents before they happen.

“Over the next three years, we hope to create a pre-fire plan for every commercial structure in the county,” said Hempel. “Part of those plans will include working with our water providers to help them expand and upgrade water delivery systems – like fire hydrants – to ensure we have a water source wherever and whenever we need one.”

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