NM fire chief defends allowing crew to appear at state capitol while on duty

A Santa Fe firetruck appeared in the background of a news conference supporting legislation related to worker's compensation for PTSD


Daniel J. Chacón
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe Fire Chief Paul Babcock defended his decision Tuesday to allow a handful of first responders to take a fire engine to the state capitol last week to support a bill while they were on duty.

Babcock disputed the notion that the three on-duty firefighters were lobbying when they and their fire truck were used as a backdrop at a news conference in support of legislation that would, among other things, create a presumption that post-traumatic stress disorder is "proximately caused" by their jobs. The proposed legislation, House Bill 6, passed in the House the day of the news conference and is now headed to the Senate for final reading.

"These individuals were definitely available for a call, so if they would have had a call in their district, they would’ve left the press [conference] and then responded," he said.

Babcock said the issue of first responders dealing with PTSD is such a huge problem that he saw fit for one of his crews to attend the news conference.

"We address behavioral issues throughout the community, and that’s what our job is, but we never really address the behavioral needs of the profession," he said.

"I have many firefighters that retire after putting 20 or 25 years in the system and then not being able to deal with what their career put them through and not providing these types of services. So, I will do anything I can to make sure these people have a healthy retirement, not only a healthy career," he added.

The issue is so serious, Babcock said, that he's in the process of hiring contractors to help firefighters "deal with these types of issues that we deal with in our profession."

Babcock said Santa Fe firefighters are only allowed to attend legislative hearings in support or opposition of a bill while they're off duty and out of uniform.

"They’re not talking to any senators or representatives at all," he said, referring to the three firefighters who attended the news conference. "They’re not asking to pass this bill. They’re not asking for support of this bill, and if they are, they're not doing it on duty or with the fire truck present."

Asked whether their presence at a news conference in support of legislation could be construed as lobbying, Babcock replied, "It depends on how you want to define it and how I define it."

Firefighters who have been attending legislative hearings in uniform are not from the Santa Fe Fire Department, he said.

"There’s been a lot of firefighters present and in uniform; none of them have been Santa Fe Fire Department," he said. "All those people you’re seeing in uniform are Albuquerque fire personnel. ... I’m only allowing our guys to go off duty and in regular clothes."

Santa Fe firefighters who go to the Capitol every year in uniform are there on official business performing what he called "building familiarization."

"If they get a call, they know where to meet state police and pick up that patient if that’s the case," he said of the training exercise.

Babcock said the firefighters at last week's news conference were there only for a short time.

"They were there for about — if I say 30 minutes, that’s exaggeration," he said. "I think they were there for about 15 minutes, but I did allow them to go."

In a voicemail message last week, Assistant Chief Phil Martinez said Santa Fe Firefighters Local 2059, the firefighters union, requested their presence.

"They were in service, and they were in their own district," he said. "They didn’t receive any calls as they were there, but they were with the radio waiting for" any calls.

In a follow-up email, Martinez defended the fire department's decision, saying it "absolutely" supports "our personnel and any legislation that would benefit our first responders.

"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects so many of our team members, we want them to know that we not only support them, but we are grateful for them, and we value them," Martinez wrote. "These firefighters and first responders are a vital part of our community and we treasure the positive bonds they share with our community. We encourage our personnel to take part in as many things as possible, and encourage their visibility at all the events and places that matter to all of us."

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©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

 

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