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Firefighter Staffing at Issue

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- Staffing shortages in the Bernalillo County Fire Department have led to a controversial decision that some say sacrifices firefighter safety for paramedic rescue personnel.

Until recently, mandatory overtime was being used to ensure that a sufficient number of firefighters were available for each firetruck. It was a situation that was likely to lead to burnout, according to Bernalillo County Fire Chief John Garcia.

Garcia recently rearranged the county staff to address that situation.

"We've had to reduce the amount of people on the truck," Garcia said in a phone interview Monday.

He configured the staff so a minimum of four people are assigned to each station in Bernalillo County, with the exception of Station 5 near Paseo Del Norte in Albuquerque. It has three permanent positions.

The other stations each have two people assigned to a paramedic rescue unit and the other two operate the fire engine.

Garcia said he is aware that the firefighters union was not happy with his decision, which was made last week.

The reduction in fire engine staff creates an unsafe situation for firefighters, according to Jerry Ironside, the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Local 244 chapter vice president.

Ironside said the new staffing setup goes against National Fire Protection Administration guidelines.

"They want four firefighters on every apparatus (fire engine) on every shift," he said.

An alternate plan, which the union supports, would have raised staffing on the engines by eliminating rescue units at Station 10 in Tijeras and Station 4 in Albuquerque.

"We, as labor, feel that we don't need to ... duplicate Albuquerque Ambulance," he said. "Albuquerque Ambulance does an adequate job."

Albuquerque Ambulance is the major provider of rescue services in the greater Albuquerque area. Ironside said Albuquerque Ambulance and other fire stations near Stations 4 and 10 can handle rescue operations in the area.

Garcia defended his decision to keep a rescue unit operating at all stations except Station 5, saying he feels that the rescue personnel are essential, especially in the East Mountains.

Garcia said firefighters do more transportation of injured people in the East Mountains, and that was one reason he kept personnel on the rescue units, rather than adopt the union plan.

He also said winter in the East Mountains can make it difficult to get an ambulance in from Albuquerque.

Should Station 10 be stripped of its rescue personnel, Ironside said, other fire stations in the East Mountains would still be equipped to transport people.

"That s not really an issue at all," Ironside said.

In any case, additional help may be on its way. Six new firefighters are in training and expected to be taking shifts in about nine weeks, and an additional 10 may be trained and available by September of next year, according to Garcia.

He hopes those additions will allow for five positions to be filled at almost every station, with three on the firetrucks and two rescue personnel, by next year.

Ironside, however, said he is skeptical.

"I don't believe it will be back up to three next year," he said.

In Ironside's opinion, the chief's recent decision demonstrates a lack of commitment to staffing minimum numbers of firefighters to each engine.

Ironside said Garcia and his predecessor, Bett Clark, have both reallocated resources from the fire engines to rescue units, which he considers a step backward.

"The chief has made his decision and we don't agree with it," he said.

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