Albuquerque Fire Department Capt. Frank Soto Jr. grew up as the son of a Marine. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be like his dad and enter public service. Soto has been a firefighter for 17 years.
“For us in the fire department, it is not about being a hero. It is about the lives you save,” Soto says. “You know you could die doing it. You know you won’t make a million dollars doing it. But it is in our blood, and we just need to do it.”
The Albuquerque Fire Department has about 700 sworn personnel who work out of 22 fire stations. The majority of the firefighters jump on a crew after graduation and start responding to the 76,000 emergency calls that roll in every year. That’s more than 200 calls every day on average from across 182 square miles. Other firefighters run the fire academy or work at the city’s dispatch center.
While about one-fifth of calls are for vehicle or structure fires, most are for medical emergencies. City firefighters work rotations of two days on and four days off. Some of those days on mean 48 hours of one emergency call after another. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest.
Two studies that take different critical looks at the fire department were released within a week of one another last month. The first was done at the request of the local firefighter’s union. “Two years ago we asked for the International Association of Fire Fighters to do a Geographical Information System analysis of the city and county fire departments,” says Diego Arencon, president of the Albuquerque Area Fire Fighters Local 244.
Mayor Richard Berry requested the other study in March 2012 to see where the city could save some money. Since the two became public, there’s been a lot of finger pointing in a typical union vs. management controversy.
The union-commissioned GIS study points out the need for more fire trucks and staff. It also suggests better coordinated communication between the city and the county departments. The GIS study says the city department can’t respond to 90 percent of roads in Albuquerque within the nationally recommended time frames. Certain roads were identified as especially troublesome—with heavy traffic or sharp turns—around the edges of the city where it meets the county.
“This report cuts costs with no regard for firefighter or the public’s safety.”
Diego Arencon, president of the Albuquerque Area Fire Fighters Local 244
But both the fire brass and the rank-and-file are eager to soothe public concern: There is no danger of not receiving help when someone calls 911. “We are getting the job done,” Soto says. “We are responding to those calls. We are just doing more with less.”
Back in March, the City Council barely approved Mayor Berry’s request to spend $200,000 to have the Matrix Consulting Group prepare a report. Matrix is an out-of-state firm that recommends ways for government entities to cut costs. The firm took a look at all of the city’s divisions, including the fire department.
The almost 600-page Matrix report says the city could save more than $500,000 a year by having only one paramedic on each rescue unit instead of two and by combining the police and fire dispatch centers, which would mean staffing them with civilian personnel instead of sworn firefighters. It also recommends that senior officials with AFD re-evaluate the number of personnel sent to structure fires, with the implication that they’re sending too many. “This report cuts costs with no regard for firefighter or the public’s safety,” Arencon says. “Having firefighters do the dispatching is key because they know from experience what responding units will have to face when they get on scene and can more accurately dispatch the needed help.”
Politics aside, Fire Chief James Breen wholeheartedly agrees with Capt. Soto on one point. “Our firefighters are a dedicated bunch that are getting to calls quickly and saving lives,” he says. The GIS study is useful, he adds, but also confusing because it analyzes roads, not incidents. He notes that budget money doesn’t come easily, and finding an additional $9 million for recurring salaries and more than $20 million for equipment is just not possible within the city’s two-year bond cycle. Breen declined to comment on the Matrix report, saying he hadn't yet completely analyzed it.
“The GIS study recommendations don’t have to be implemented all at once. They can be phased in,” Arencon counters. “Budget cuts, by the mayor or the Council, should not be done in the area of public safety.” The city, he says, should not skim millions from operational coffers for pet projects like Mayor Berry’s ABQ: The Plan.
Over on the Bernalillo County side, Fire and Rescue Communications Division Chief Greg Perez says the two departments have come a long way in their working relationship, and there are always financial constraints. “Our latest joint endeavor to ensure the closest unit responds to an emergency, regardless of whether it's in the city or the county, is a step in the right direction,” Perez writes in an e-mail.
Regardless of money issues, local firefighters take a lot of pride in what they do every day. Capt. Soto says: “That one life you save is why we do this.”
• Each unit in the city and county should be staffed with four firefighters at all times.
• Areas near Stations 14, 15, 17, 18 and 20 need better engine coverage. Stations 8, 9 and 14 should have ladder companies. Stations 9, 14 and 27 need battalion commanders.
• A fire station should be built near I-40 and Central.
• Bernalillo County needs more ladder companies, as well as brush trucks and water tanks since there’s a water-supply problem.