BLOOMFIELD — The Federal Emergency Management Agency will give Bloomfield $1 million to more than triple the number of paid firefighters the city has for the next two years.
But Bloomfield City Manager David Fuqua said the city can't afford to increase its fire department and likely won't be able to maintain the staffing levels achieved with the grant when it expires in 2016.
John Mohler, the assistant fire chief, said the city will hire seven full-time firefighters with federal money.
That would give the city 10 full-time firefighters. The city's fire department also relies on volunteers.
Mohler said with more firefighters, the Bloomfield fire department will be in alignment with the National Fire Protection Association's standards for a city the size of Bloomfield. The fire department currently doesn't meet the national firefighter staffing numbers for a city its size, he said.
The Bloomfield City Council in a special session on Monday unanimously voted to accept FEMA's grant, which was awarded last month. Officials have until mid-May to hire additional firefighters in order to get the grant money.
Mohler said the extra staffing will hopefully reduce the city's response time for fires and emergencies to four minutes at all times, which is also a standard for the National Fire Protection Association.
The city's fire department only hits the standard response time for emergency calls during normal business hours, he said. At nights and on weekends, the fire department's response time is about 10 minutes.
Fire Chief George Duncan provided councilors with documents that showed there were more than 30 cases last year when a lengthy response time to a fire or medical call negatively affected Bloomfield and its citizens.
City councilors said they want it made clear to firefighters hired as part of the allotment that their positions are not guaranteed once the money expires.
"As long as it's clear up front to each and every one of these guys and they are willing to sign a contract to that, I will feel a whole lot better about it," said Bloomfield City Counselor Elwin Roark.
If the city hires military veterans as the additional firefighters, their contracts can be extended by one year and still be paid for by the federal government, Duncan said.
He said the fire department will look to hire Bloomfield volunteer firefighters with military experience. He also assured councilors the new firefighters will understand their positions may end when the grant ends.
Fuqua, in a letter to Mayor Scott Eckstein and councilors on Friday, said there has been a history of grant-funded employees in Bloomfield staying on after the grant expired. He said he is concerned that could happened to the additional firefighters.
"The councilors know how I felt and about my concerns, but they are the decision makers. I'm still concerned," Fuqua said. "Most (grant-funded) employees don't go when the grant runs out. It's hard to fire people. But it does make me feel better that we are going to let them know about the terms up front."
Fuqua said the city is facing more pressing issues than significantly increasing the size of its fire department. For example, the city's water treatment facility needs an expensive upgrade to meet federal standards, he said.
"I never have said it wouldn't be great to have a full-time staffed fire department," Fuqua said. "It would be great. But we can't afford it right now."
Duncan said the fire department will have to spend about $30,000 to equip and get physical health tests for the firefighters hired as part of the grant. He said state fire funds — which are provided to fire departments and earmarked for certain expenses — will pay for those costs.
The New Mexico congressional delegation said in prepared statements that the federal grant will make Bloomfield safer.
"This investment will help the Bloomfield Fire Department maintain the staffing it needs to keep the public safe," U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, said of the federal grant. "I will continue to support these essential grant programs to ensure our fire responders can do their jobs effectively and safely."
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who represents the northern part of the state including San Juan County, said the money will help Bloomfield during a hot and dry summer.
"With New Mexico facing the threat of a longer fire season, these federal funds are a critical component to ensuring that the Bloomfield area has the personnel it needs to protect the community," he said.
Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.