By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
State requirements calling for higher levels of firefighter certification for reimbursement on wildland fires have area fire departments poised to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Local fire departments recently learned that their agreements with New Mexico State Forestry will be canceled in the next 90 days and the joint powers agreements the various municipalities and fire departments will be asked to sign will bring the state into line with federal wildland fire fighting requirements.
Fire department representatives from throughout the area got together Monday in Portales with State Forestry officials to discuss the problem. While the local departments got a chance to vent their frustration, few solutions seemed apparent.
Kim Kostelnik, NMSF’s resource protection bureau chief, told the group that the action was being taken in response to the discovery that NMSF had been out of compliance with state statutes and federal mandates with previous reimbursement to the east side agencies.
She said that in order to receive reimbursement under the new JPA they would be required to have firefighters who are red-card certified responding to fires.
The red card system is a federal wildland firefighter standard that requires 32 hours of classroom instruction and 6-8 hours annual refresher course as well as a physical fitness test that requires the holder to make a three-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes, often called the “pack” test.
“If we have to red card all these people what is that going to do to these departments,” questioned Dora Fire Chief Paul Luscombe? “What you’re asking from these volunteer fire departments is excessive.”
Kostelnik admitted that what the new rules boiled down to was liability for the firefighter on a major fire. She said state and federal agencies no longer want that liability for firefighters without a red card.
“I.C. (incident command) can actually be held liable for the safety of the firefighters,” Kostelnik said.
Kostelnik emphasized several times that the state wasn’t telling the local communities how to run their fire departments, just that they would no longer reimburse them if they weren’t under the guidelines of the new JPAs and firefighters without red cards wouldn’t be used on larger fires where I.C. had passed to state or federal hands.
She told the group that her agency was prepared to bring the needed training to the local areas and had money set aside to do that.
It was the “pack” test requirement that had most agency representatives upset. Local firefighters argued that they aren’t fighting forest fires on the eastern plains — and the certification rules for a firefighter dropped off to work a fire line on a forest fire shouldn’t be the same for the firefighter battling a grass fire aboard a brush truck. Several firefighters said they had been trained not to dismount from the truck for safety reasons.
“We don’t pack a hose up a hill,” Arch firefighter Joe Kirkpatrick said.
“We’re saying there’s no relevancy to the pack test (here).”
Some, like Luscombe, pondered the fate of the rural volunteer departments without the funding they receive from NMSF reimbursements. He told the group that his department fought 310,000 acres of wildland fire with no red card certified firefighters in the last year and had no injuries. He said he worries about the loss of experience and the numbers of volunteers available if they can’t qualify people.
“We’ve got guys with bad knees that couldn’t pass the ‘pack’ test,” Floyd Fire Chief Leland Terry said. “But they’re great truck drivers.”
Causey’s representatives had similar concerns for an even smaller department.
“What you’re doing is effectively decommissioning our departments,” Willard Heck of the Causey department said. “We’re struggling to keep our department together every day.”
Portales Fire Department Battalion commander Darwin Chenault said he’s pretty sure no one in his department has their red card. But he knows the burden for getting his wildland firefighters certified will be less for his paid fire department.
“We have people on staff who can pass the test,” Chenault said. “It’s the county departments that are going to be hurt. We’ll probably set a standard and have everybody pass it by the end of the year or something.”
Terry says his department is still feeling the financial sting from the fire big fire in his district last November followed by fires only nearly a daily basis for part of the year. He says he believes an equally devastating fire season is looming.
“Now its going to be even worse without those reimbursements,” Terry said.
Terry figures he has three or four volunteers out of 29 who might be able to obtain their red cards.
The only bright spot in the meeting was the suggestion the group could put together a wildland fire response team composed of red card certified members from across the various departments who could help retain some of the reimbursements.
“That’s the smart thing to do,” Kostelnik said. “That’s something I would be very happy to support.”