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N.M. county FD uses simulations to teach officials about fire, EMS

The Santa Fe County Fire Department firefighters’ union held its first Fire Ops 101 for local legislators


Santa Fe County Fire Department/Facebook

By Nathan Lederman
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE COUNTY, N.M. — Firefighters and paramedics are thrown into life-or-death situations for a living.

People know this.

But words on a page or video footage cannot make someone feel the extreme heat inside a burning building or the pressure of trying to save someone in cardiac arrest.

The Santa Fe County Fire Department and its local union invited county leaders to participate in a series of simulations Saturday intended to show them a glimpse of what their personnel feel on a near-daily basis. Activities at the south side’s Isaac Garcia Memorial Training Center included saving a weighted dummy from a burning building — which reached about 700 degrees Fahrenheit — and using extrication tools to tear cars apart to simulate saving passengers trapped inside.

“We think it’s just a great opportunity to get people who have a high-level view of the fire department to deepen their understanding [and] to really see what we do, and why we need what we need — such as equipment — and the physical and mental stresses of the job,” Chief Jacob Black said.

County Manager Greg Shaffer, Regional Emergency Communications Center Director Roberto Lujan, Human Resources Director Sonya Quintana and spokeswoman Olivia Romo all suited up in beige gear and briefly traded in their day jobs to be firefighters in training.

“I almost didn’t come,” Quintana said. “I was worried ... and then I’m like ‘They do this every day. You need to get over there.’ ”

Many agencies in New Mexico have been struggling to recruit firefighters recently. The city of Santa Fe recently approved 3% raises for its firefighters. A bill to give firefighters $5,000 bonuses passed both chambers of the Legislature during this year’s session but was pocket vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Capt. Jeffrey Matchison said he has been working to bring the Fire Ops 101 program — which is developed by the International Association of Fire Fighters — to Santa Fe County since before the coronavirus pandemic. He said over 14 firefighters and paramedics volunteered to help guide the five participants, including a reporter from The New Mexican, through each of the four scenarios.

“This is the first time something like this has been put on by a department our size, and there [have] been very few of these fire operations within the state, so this is big. This is big for our department. This is big for the [union], so it’s really exciting,” Matchison said.

Before starting the scenarios, Capt. Eutimio Ortiz — who serves as IAFF Local 4366’s president — advised participants the scenarios could not simulate the “mental health aspect” of firefighting and asked they try to envision the added emotional stress that comes with working at the fire department.

“I hope while you’re doing it, if you can just take a moment to really think about what it would be like to be in this burning building where you have no idea what the layout is ... and really just try and make it feel like it’s the real thing so you can get more of an idea of what we do,” Ortiz said.

Participants may have known the layout of the “burn building” beforehand, but each of them saw it in a whole new light once they slung on an oxygen tank, put on a tight mask and crawled into its searing depths.

Organizers lit hay on wooden pallets on fire inside of a restricted burn room before joining the newbies as they entered what seemed like another world. Thick smoke clouded the small structure as flames rose toward the burn room’s ceiling. Capt. Sal Caputo said temperatures in the building reached about 700 degrees Fahrenheit in the burn room as county officials dragged a weighted dummy out of an adjacent room toward safety. The would-be firefighters were then helped to bring a hose back into the building and doused the rip-roaring fire out of existence.

“It’s one of those experiences that you can’t really prepare yourself for in terms of what that level of heat feels like,” Shaffer said.

Lujan agreed.

“It was very intense, and I couldn’t imagine having to wear the mask and be in a burning building ... [to] the extent that they have to actually go through that. As soon as I got out of there, I just wanted to take the mask off and get some fresh air,” the 911 dispatch director said.

The officials were taken to a shaded area outside where they took off their helmets, gloves and heavy jackets before being showered with offers of Gatorade and water. After each scenario, Assistant Chief Martin Vigil — who oversees special operations and serves as the department’s emergency management director — mandated the participants rest during what firefighters call a “rehab” period.

Vigil and Emergency Management Coordinator Ignacio Dominguez explained to county officials how important it is to properly monitor firefighters’ conditions during an active fire and said they have ambulances stocked with food, water and other drinks in order to keep first responders safe. They also monitor firefighters’ heart rates and let them know whether or not they are able to keep fighting an active blaze.

Saturday’s participants had their heart rates monitored between scenarios, and special devices — including one that blows refrigerated air — were on site to ensure everyone stayed safe.

Maintaining someone’s health — albeit a dummy — was the objective for a paramedic-centric scenario. EMS Capt. Daniel Meyer and Assistant Chief Jaome Blay walked county officials through a scenario in which a dummy inside a makeshift trailer home had gone into cardiac arrest. Participants were instructed on how to manually apply CPR — which Blay suggested be done to the beat of The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” — before walking them through intubating the dummy, applying an automatic compression machine and lifting the dummy onto a gurney before taking it into the back of an ambulance.

In real life, cardiac arrest patients have about seven minutes before they begin to suffer irreversible neurological damage, Meyer said. The dummy may have had all the time in the world, but county officials were frequently reminded just how little time paramedics have to save a life.

“There’s so much expectation. There’s a life at stake, and our guys are working through all of that. It’s physically exhausting. It’s mentally exhausting, and you always have to stay ahead thinking of the next step,” Quintana said.

The same stakes apply when firefighters are tasked with extricating crash victims out of a battered car. County officials were taken to a selection of “junkyard cars” during another scenario and taught how to quickly break windows and pull off doors and roofs to save passengers trapped inside.

Firefighters and paramedics assisting the participants supplied them first with older extrication tools connected to a nearby vehicle with a cord which proved to be heavy and slightly unwieldy. Next, they were given newer tools from Hurst Jaws of Life which were cordless, battery-powered and ultimately stronger than the older models. Black said most of the extrication tools his department has are the older models and added the direct comparison between the corded and battery-powered machines helped show officials how newer equipment can save seconds and save lives.

The last of the four scenarios — which were done in no particular order as participants cycled through each of them simultaneously — called for county officials to climb up a fire engine’s 75-foot ladder while attached to a harness.

Quintana said she is afraid of heights but scaled the ladder rapidly before taking her hands off the top rungs and allowing her harness to keep her in the air with her arms stretched out wide.

“I think ... if you’re afraid of something you have to do it so that you can learn how to conquer being afraid of it,” Quintana said.

All participants were given custom plaques made by Lt. paramedic Clarence Romero to commemorate their completion of Fire Ops 101.

Lujan said he was grateful to have participated in the event, which helped him gain an even better understanding of the work first responders engage in after they’ve received calls from his dispatch center.

“The dedication and commitment and knowledge that it takes to be a great firefighter is immense. I have a whole new respect and admiration for having to do that because it was hard enough doing it in a training scenario. To do it in a real-world situation in the middle of the night with unknown circumstances is incredible,” Lujan said.

While Matchison, several other organizers and participating first responders said the event was a success, Lujan Grisham said she was “disappointed” in the relatively low turnout when she briefly popped into the event early on.

“How about if I make a personal challenge to elected officials to get this done in a letter directly from me and my office for every county operation willing to invite folks like me to really get a firsthand understanding and a bird’s eye view of how challenging the work that you do every day [is]?” the governor asked before the scenarios started.

Shaffer said he hopes county commissioners and others in county leadership attend future events like Saturday’s but added those who were unable to make it “certainly regret that.”

He said the experience of participating in Fire Ops 101 was beneficial.

“Any time you can have empathy and appreciation for what people do, it helps you better think about how you can support them [and] gives you better insights into what their needs are ... and that’s beneficial as a manager, it’s beneficial in society,” Shaffer said.

Battalion Chief Ramon Vilorio appreciated county officials for taking time to experience what those in his department go through.

“We do this to help our fellow man. We do this by oath and by commitment, and by the bond that we share — the familial bonds of family. And so, you guys coming lets me know that you care about that, and lets these men and women who work so hard know that, and that makes a difference,” Vilorio said.

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