Firefighter protection bill introduced

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

A bill protecting wildland firefighters from criminal prosecution has been introduced in the New Mexico Legislature by Rep. Keith Gardner R-Roswell.

The second-term representative said the bill is in response to concerns raised this fall by volunteer firefighters in eastern New Mexico about standards contained in new joint powers agreements with the New Mexico Forestry Division.

The state agreements will not authorize reimbursement for wildland firefighting to departments using uncertified firefighters. Those reimbursements are the lifeblood to most rural departments’ budget, firefighters say.

According to Gardner, the Forestry Division is concerned about its liability after criminal charges were brought against supervisors in other states following the deaths of firefighters who were not trained to federal wildland firefighting standards.

Gardner’s bill would remove that criminal liability from the state statutes.

“The department (Forestry Division) felt that if we did this they wouldn’t have the problems with their employees being liable.”

Departments from several eastern New Mexico counties held a heated meeting with the Forestry Division in Portales in September, but were unable to resolve the situation at the time.

Dora Fire Chief Paul Luscombe said he knew area legislators had pledged to work on the problem but he hadn’t heard about the legislation.

“If this would provide us a legal liability waiver (or something similar) that would be an alternative to the certification, I would be all for it,” Luscombe said.

Luscombe said he hopes the situation is resolved before it gets to the point where a rural department is unable to respond to a fire.

“We want to see a resolution, whether this bill passes or not,” Gardner said. “I understand their (Forestry Division) concerns but they don’t understand the way we fight fires compared to the way they do in Capitan.”

Gardner said he’s seen an apparent willingness by the state to work under two levels of reimbursement — one for certified firefighters and a lower rate for uncertified, which provides an incentive for departments to gain certification.

At a glance

Area fire departments, especially rural departments, are concerned about losing state reimbursements for wildland firefighting due to certification requirements outlined in new joint powers agreements being sent out by the New Mexico Forestry Division.

The specific concern is what is called red-card certification.
Among the physical requirements for that certification are what’s called a “pack test” which requires the firefighter to walk or run three miles in 45 minutes wearing a 45-pound pack. They say many of their volunteer firefighters may not be able to complete that test.

State Forestry concerns

Recently district attorneys in two Western states have filed criminal charges against fire-line supervisors after the deaths of firefighters who were not qualified to the federal standards. They say this has made fire-line supervisors reluctant to work on fires where uncertified firefighters are present.

Legislator concerns

Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell, and other legislators worry responses could be delayed if the legislation is not passed. They worry that homes and lives could be in danger.

— Karl Terry
PNT Managing Editor