N.M. Residents Inflamed Over Fire District Changes

March 18, 2013
Seemingly arbitrary change in the fire district lines have Loving residents up in arms. Officials are saying the changes are necessary to ensure firefighters are sent to all reported calls in the area.

March 17--Loving residents living outside the village limits and the town's firefighters, say they were blind-sided by the county's seemingly arbitrary change in their fire district.

Earlier this month, the Eddy County Commission unanimously passed a resolution after Joel Arnwine, county emergency preparedness manager, told the commission that recent changes in reporting requirements that came down from the New Mexico State Fire Marshal's Office, have made it necessary to change the Otis and Malaga fire districts.

He said change ensures that county volunteer fire departments are sent to all reported fire calls in areas of the county and generate the proper reports for those fire calls.

Arnwine told the commission this week that the fire calls in the county, and the required reports for those calls, are tied to state fire protection funds the county could lose if the fire district line was not redrawn.

Vickie Connally, whose home is about 2 miles from the village of Loving's fire department, said Malaga's volunteer fire department, which is about 6 miles from her home, is short-staffed and already has increased responsibilities south of Malaga due to increased oil activity.

She said it makes more sense for Loving to be the primary responder just outside the village limits.

"Loving Fire Department is better equipped to respond more quickly. Apply common sense to this problem. Change for change's sake is not constructive," she told the commission.

Arnwine advised the commission that when a call comes in, Loving, Malaga and Otis fire departments are toned (called out) simultaneously by the dispatcher.

But Loving's firefighters say that is not the case. Since the boundary change, they are not being called out, but they continue to respond regardless.

Insurance rates

Added to the reported problem of having Malaga and Otis volunteer fire departments as first responders outside the village limits, homeowners say they will see an increase in their insurance premiums.

Insurance companies take into consideration the Insurance Service Office rating in setting the homeowner's insurance premium.

ISO collects information on municipal fire-protection efforts in communities throughout the United States.

In each of those communities, ISO analyzes the relevant data using a fire suppression rating schedule.

ISO then assigns a public protection classification from 1 to 10.

Class 1 represents exemplary public protection, and Class 10 indicates that the area's fire-suppression program doesn't meet ISO's minimum criteria. By classifying communities' ability to suppress fires, ISO helps the communities evaluate their public fire-protection services.

The program provides an objective, countrywide standard that helps fire departments in planning and budgeting for facilities, equipment and training and securing lower fire insurance premiums for communities with better public protection.

Connally said Loving's ISO rating is a 7, while Malaga's is a 9-10, meaning that she and her neighbors affected by the fire district change will see a spike in their insurance premiums.

Arnwine told the commission that affected homeowners in the redrawn fire district would not see a change in the premiums. But Connally said Arnwine is wrong, and presented letters from several major insurers in Carlsbad that she contacted which said that the ISO rating is usually a factor in determining property insurance rates.

Commissioner Tony Hernandez, who lives in Malaga, said following this week's commission meeting that he voted in favor of changing the boundaries in Loving because he was led to believe that the insurance rates would not increase.

After an hour of discussion, the commission said the issue needs to be revisited and instructed Arnwine to set up a meeting with the affected people in Loving and the community's fire department.

Following the meeting, Connally and Loving's volunteer firefighters sat down with the Current-Argus to air their concerns.

Emergency responders and residents' concerns

Loving Fire Marshal Jonathan Grandi, who holds an advanced emergency medical technician certification, said residents in the outlying areas are waiting 30 minutes or more for another department to respond when Loving could be there in a few short minutes.

"On average, a trailer house can burn completely down in four to 20 minutes," Grandi said. "With us here and close, we have a chance to at least save some of the homeowners' personal possessions. In the county meeting on Tuesday, everyone was talking about the fire side of this story, but I'm thinking about the medical part."

Grandi said emergency medical responders are mindful of the "golden hour," especially in traumatic injury situations. If they can get to the patient within an hour and start treatment, the person has a greater chance of survival.

He said there have been calls on Jayder Road, just outside Loving, that his department responded to. Now, he said, the first response is handed over to Malaga's fire department, some 6 miles away.

"Right now, Malaga has only three people that always respond. They have even stated they can't handle their district with the lack of personnel," Grandi said. "Joel Arnwine said that the reasons the districts were changed was due to the funding. I think the reason is that the county was losing money with us responding outside the village limits and he wants the county to receive more funding," Grandi said. "As far as I'm concerned, you can't put a price on somebody's life."

Stretched resources

Loving resident and farmer Johnny Reid said he also wants the Loving fire district restored.

"The geophysical barriers under the new boundaries interfere with response time, which is the most important factor in preventing loss of life and property," he said.

Reid, a former Loving fire chief, said Loving is a community with personnel that can better respond to fires than other departments in the area. He said the two departments' volunteer firefighters live distances away from the fire stations, which affects response time.

Loving firefighters said the Otis fire chief lives in Carlsbad and it takes time to get from Carlsbad to Otis, especially with the increased traffic in the city. Michael Stone, a pastor in Loving and a volunteer firefighter, said with the influx of oilfield traffic and workers, from a business standpoint, redistricting the outskirts of rural Loving is different than redistricting in a more urban city like Carlsbad.

Stone and others provided instances in the past week in which emergency medical services were required at roll-overs on U.S. Highway 285 where Malaga was dispatched, then the city of Carlsbad's fire emergency services.

"Last week, there was a roll-over at mile marker 7 on (Highway) 285 where there were two people needing assistance. Malaga was toned out, they didn't respond, and then Carlsbad was toned out. We were not called," Stone said.

Loving Fire Chief Dennis Onsurez said in addition to his concerns for people needing immediate help, a great number of Loving residents who live outside village limits are on small or fixed incomes. He said if their insurance rates increase, they may not be able to afford paying their premiums. Loving EMT Raquel Acosta said with the large oilfield operations, heavy traffic is coming through Loving and Malaga and the fire departments in the area are seeing an increase in accidents.

"There have been some fatalities on the Pecos Highway (US. 285), especially near the Texas-New Mexico state line. A concern is that accidents, fires and medical emergencies are not getting the closest fire department due to the new county resolution that Joel Arnwine submitted and had approved by the Eddy County Commission," Acosta said.

Acosta said there has been a lack of communication between Loving and the county's emergency management office for several years and within the past year, it has become worse.

"Communication needs to improve and the district needs to be back the way it was and with an automated tone system in place," she said. "An automated tone system will improve protection class for all districts; hence help homeowners' insurance premiums to go down."

Reasons unclear

Connally said the reasoning behind the county's recent resolution is still unclear. However, she said Arnwine's statement that the redistricting change was made due to state reporting requirements is not entirely true.

"Loving Fire Department uses the same data reporting system and the Office of Emergency Management has access to those records any time. The records are kept up-to-date in order to receive state funding," she said.

Connally said the county and the village of Loving signed a mutual aid agreement in 1997, and she believes that agreement should suffice, allowing Loving to be the first responder under certain circumstances.

Although the group feels it did not get its concerns across to the commission during the meeting, they said they feel confident that the commission will reconsider its decision in reversing the resolution or finding a solution that everyone can live with.

Copyright 2013 - Carlsbad Current-Argus, N.M.

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