County fire chief leaving

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The Sandoval County fire chief has stepped down.

James Maxon

Chief James Maxon’s last day with the county was Friday. He’s retiring from New Mexico fire services after 26 years, 13 of them with Sandoval County, and taking a job as a fire chief in Colorado.

“It’s a great opportunity and I decided to take it,” he said. “It’s actually bittersweet for me to be retiring because I do love the people in Sandoval County.”

He began his career at age 16 as a volunteer firefighter, and has been the Sandoval County fire chief for the last 6½ years. Maxon said he wants to work in fire service for 50 years, with half in New Mexico and half in another state.

Deputy Chief Eric Masterson will serve as interim chief while the county conducts a search for Maxon’s permanent replacement.

Eric Masterson

Sandoval County Commission Chairman Dave Heil said Maxon had been a great asset for county residents and visitors.

“He leaves us the foundation he has built for an outstanding fire department and public safety agency,” Heil said. “We have been so fortunate to have him in our ranks for 13 years.”

Maxon said one of his major initiatives in the department was a behavioral health program for firefighters. He is also proud to have increased the staffing of career firefighters by one-third, adding nine new positions, and recruited 100 new volunteer firefighters.

The “Join Our Team” slogan on county fire vehicles was his creation as a deputy chief.

“We get a lot of traffic from those signs on the back of every single one of our trucks,” Maxon said.

He started a citizens’ fire academy and a firefighter residency training program, and led the effort to replace the county-wide computer-aided dispatch system for fire and law enforcement with an updated, more efficient system. He said installation of the new system is expected to finish in June.

The fire department has replaced 20 fire apparatus during Maxon’s tenure, and he designed them, since all firetrucks are custom-made, he said.

“I think, overall, for me in retiring, we’ve made the community safer and improved emergency services for the residents of Sandoval County if they need us,” Maxon said.

Two emergencies in his 13 years with the county stand out to him. One was responding to the car crash in which his predecessor, county Fire Chief Jon Tibbetts, died in 2012.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to save him,” Maxon said.

The second was helping rescue four workers trapped after a pile of material collapsed at the Vulcan Materials gravel mine in Placitas in June 2017. The threat of a further avalanche was constant for the victims and responders.

“I was the first on scene, and we were able to get all four of those gravel miners out alive,” Maxon said.

Sandoval County Manager Dianne Maes said she appreciated Maxon’s devotion to his career field.

“Not everyone grows up knowing what they want to do with their life, but his chosen field is an admirable one,” said Maes.  “As James departs, I have every confidence that Deputy Chief Masterson will keep the department going strong.”

Sandoval County Fire Department has 40 full- or part-time career firefighters, 230 volunteers, 140 emergency vehicles and 20 fire stations in eight districts, working to meet a wide variety of needs in a broad range of settings. International consultants told Maxon it was the most complicated fire department they’d seen in the U.S.

“So being the chief of that for the last 6½ years is really great, and I’m really proud of the things we’ve accomplished,” he said.