Volunteer fire/EMS departments are the one place where political parties, religious differences, and racial and age biases disappear. We are family and depend on each other for the good of our communities. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act could close our doors. Qualified immunity is not just a bad-cop issue. In the fire service, fire officers make huge decisions daily that affect human life and safety. Our training obviously helps, but the unpredictable nature of fire makes these decisions difficult. QI prevents frivolous and costly lawsuits against public servants.
New Mexico’s fire service is 88.6% volunteer. Fourteen percent of all firefighter lawsuits fall under civil rights violations; most are alleged denial of due process based on the deprivation of life or property. Without QI, we predict an exodus of volunteers, especially our most knowledgeable fire officers. Many state that under House Bill 4 a person can only sue the entity; however, if it is deemed a firefighter did not make the right decision in spite of their training, in spite of the explosiveness of the situation, in spite of their very best intentions to consider life safety, then that firefighter can face civil suits. We consulted five attorneys in regard to the loss of QI. Two state the entity can recoup losses from the individual. Who would risk this? Even if found not guilty, hours will be spent in depositions, in court and in production of evidence. These stressful lawsuits take time away from our paid employment and family.
Fifty-nine-point-one percent of EMTs in New Mexico are volunteers. We face alleged HIPAA violations and triage situations deciding who we can save. We are asked to “stage” before going into a scene because of the danger involved, leading to delays in medical attention and opening EMTs to lawsuits.
Most of our members are considering leaving the fire/EMS service. MVFD/EMS is one of the largest fire departments – 45 members – and EMS departments – 12 EMTs – in the Sacramento Mountains. What a shame to tear apart a strong, vital service to rural New Mexico, making us less safe and more underserved.
To retain personnel, MVFD is looking into individual liability insurance. This much we know: It will be expensive. Without QI, we have quotes between $1,000-$5,000 each. Look at MVFD’s numbers. It will cost $25,000 to $125,000 for firefighters and $12,000 to $60,000 for EMTs yearly. To put this into perspective, MVFD serves a district of 150 square miles. We have four aging stations, three wildland trucks – $130,000 to $200,000 each, four structure trucks – $200,000 to $500,000 each, one medical rescue and four command/troop carriers, all needing constant maintenance. Mayhill EMS receives $5,000-$6,000 yearly from NMEMS Bureau, about 25% of what we spend. On fire, MVFD receives $172,433 yearly for utilities, structural/wildland PPE, equipment, trucks, repairs, insurance and more. VFDs write grants, save and then take out loans.
MVFD has firefighters/EMTs with doctorate and master’s degrees. We have career/retired career firefighters who have volunteered for 10-25 years. We have professional nurses in our EMS corps. We are not a bunch of yahoos or wannabes. To deny volunteer firefighters QI while retaining immunity for themselves shows the lack of respect the New Mexico Legislature has for those in the public service professions. Are we not guaranteed equal protection under the law?