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County plans more firefighters in northern areas

Sandoval County is planning to hire six firefighters to work from the Zia Volunteer Fire Department, shown here. They’ll serve the Jemez corridor. Courtesy photo.

BERNALILLO — Sandoval County Fire Rescue will hire six first responders to serve the Jemez corridor and partner with the Pueblo of Zia to pay the salaries of these new positions.

At the Sandoval County Commission meeting Thursday night at the county administration building, the board unanimously approved the hiring of six full-time positions with SCFR.

They made this approval against the county finance director’s recommendations.

“The funding source for these positions is not guaranteed and can be pulled, leaving the county with the full cost of six new employees,” said Cassandra Herrera, county finance director.

The Pueblo of Zia is contributing about $225,000 for this fiscal year to help fund the salaries. After that, the pueblo has agreed to contribute $250,000 yearly to help supplement the total cost of about $680,000.

In addition, the pueblo would house the firefighters its station along US 550. They would serve the Jemez corridor and the Cuba or La Cueva region, said county Fire Chief Eric Masterson.

Masterson said there is an exit clause in all county contracts. By hiring six first responders, that means two a day will work at the Zia fire station and staff would rotate.

Commissioner Michael Meek, District 3, said the pueblo is providing one-third of the budget, so if they were to pull out, the county would have to lay off all six employees because of the rotation and facility. The county would not have the funding to support the operation, Meek said.

“If it came to that, I would be finding every penny I possibly could to help avoid that, obviously. But, yes, that is the worst-case scenario,” Masterson said. “We never want to lose firefighters.”

Another concern of commissioners was this collaboration was made with Pueblo of Zia Lt. Gov. Cecil Shije, who will not always be in the position. Masterson said he is not too concerned about new leadership being against the deal because he collaborated with the tribal council as well.

“I believe that this agreement will have the full support of future administrations,” Shije was quoted as saying in Masterson’s PowerPoint presentation to commissioners.

Shije said the tribal council has been involved in the project and fully supports it.

“The council understands the need to have access to these services for our community and other communities in the area,” he said.

Volunteerism is decreasing at the Zia Volunteer Fire Department. The facility is not equipped for every type of call, such as search and rescue; SCFR answers these calls.

“We are seeing a significant impact with certain call types throughout this corridor,” Masterson said. “There was a couple of weeks in late July and early August that we were doing a search-and-rescue call daily in the Jemez Mountains.”

Response times are about 20 minutes to get to the Jemez corridor and can reach 45 minutes to get to the Cuba or La Cueva region, Masterson said.

“We are definitely feeling the impact of the increased volume in the region,” Masterson said.

With additional staff being housed in the corridor, response times can average 20 minutes faster, he said.

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