NM marshal pushes for more training

Some volunteers say the push may result in a lower turnout for an already dwindling workforce

By James Staley
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — When Robert Monsivaiz first became a volunteer firefighter, he received a pager and two instructions for what to do when it blared.

"I was told, 'You report to the fire house, and we fight fires,'" Monsivaiz said.

That was 31 years ago.

"Those days are gone," Monsivaiz said, referring to the old way of training volunteer firefighters, which was almost exclusively and on-the-job process.

Now, Monsivaiz is the fire marshal for Doña Ana County Fire and Emergency Services.

In his third year on the job, Monsivaiz has spearheaded a push to improve and standardize the training required of the volunteer firefighters at the county's 16 fire departments, which he oversees.

But Monsivaiz's effort — more than two years in the making — has some volunteer firefighters concerned. They say such requirements would exacerbate an ongoing national problem: the number of volunteer firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association, are shrinking and those that stay are aging. Locally, call volume is increasing as the area grows.

"My biggst responsibility — the county's biggest responsibility — is providing safe, effective service is to the residents of Doña Ana County," Monsivaiz said.

To that end, Monsivaiz, with input from the county fire chiefs, put into place a two-pronged plan that:

1) Requires any volunteer firefighter who applied after Jan. 1, 2011 to complete fire training, and receive a Firefighter I cerfitication, and

2) Now mandates that, as of April 30, 2013, at least half the personnel that respond to calls at each of the county fire departments attain Firefighter I certification — a criterion aimed more at the experienced volunteers. Monsivaiz said the uniform certification is critical because "there are more dangers involved in firefighting in today's world. He added that more construction materials are petroleum based, which means they burn hotter and can result in a swifter moving blaze.

The concern expressed by volunteers across multiple districts is that these changes will strip some seasoned volunteers of their utility, forcing them out.

Some volunteer firefighters are unable or unwilling to fight fires, but because the bulk of fire department calls don't require fire fighting skills, these volunteers still fill an important niche.

According to the Doña Ana County Fire and Emergency Services website, the bulk of the calls to which the county fire departments respond are medical emergencies and other services, such as alarms, car crashes and rescues.

Only 15 percent are for fires, which parallels statistics of most fire departments.

Some volunteers say that if too many are tuned off by the new requirements, or unable to get certified, that could make the total number of volunteers in the county plummet. The feared next domino is that a worsened shortage of volunteers would strain further the emergency response system — firefighters often respond first to most emergencies because of their broad reach and medical abilities.

Monsivaiz's ideal, which he initially brought forth, required that every volunteer firefighter needed the Firefighter I certification to respond to any call. He said, aside from making the county's entire force and its performance more consistent, that such a sweeping change would be safer.

"Even the support personnel (should be certified)," Monsivaiz said. "They might just be drivers, but if you have knowledge of fire behavior, you have extra set of eyes out there. It could save a life."

Moinsivaiz said he first put this plan in motion late in 2010. At that time, he gave the volunteer firefighters two years to become certified, which they can do through the county, Doña Ana Community College and the state — there are even funds available to defray the cost to the volunteer, in some cases. More experienced volunteer firefighters can also attempt to get certified by passing written and skills tests.

He admitted that there has been push back, which Monsivaiz understands to a degree. That's why, with the input of the volunteer chiefs, he decided to extend the deadline and drop the requirement to 50 percent.

Said Steve Mims, chief of the Fairacres Fire Department and longtime career firefighter with Las Cruces Fire Department: "I agree with both concepts ... There needs to be a balance there."

Mims emphasized the importance of concrete training standards, then said he wouldn't support a change that took trained EMTs out of the equation.

"That's not the best route for Doña Ana County," Mims said.

But, he also thinks that the requirement could motivate volunteer firefighters to get certified. Mims noted that licensing for Firefighter I is not nearly as strict or time consuming as EMS training.

Mims said he thinks some of the consternation among volunteers comes from lack of information and confusion. Even Mims was not aware that Monsivaiz had extended the deadline for each department to have 50 percent of their crew.

By Monzivaiz's estimate, a little less than half of the county's volunteer firefighters are certified — he noted that no single department has a large number still needing certification.

Monsivaiz remains steadfast, repeating his stance about the importance of implementing the training standard for the sake of the community and the firefighters.

"Certainly, I've set some goals to accomplish that," he said, talking about his initial thrust to have all county volunteers certified by the end of this year. "That we haven't accomplished that is certainly something to reflect on. ... In back of our minds, we knew we might need to give an extension.

"But I have no intention to give another two years or another year."

James Staley may be reached at 575-541-5476. Follow him on Twitter @auguststaley

Republished with permission from Las Cruces Sun-News

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