County will merge fire districts

Brett Berntsen
The San Juan County Fire Department District 10 station in Navajo Dam will become a substation of the Blanco district.

FARMINGTON – In an effort to dodge possible budget constraints, the San Juan County Fire Department will merge the Navajo Dam and Blanco fire districts.

County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said a lack of volunteers at the Navajo Dam station hurt its insurance rating during the last assessment. If that trend continued, he said the department could have lost state funding, and the small fly-fishing community might have seen insurance rates rise.

Operating Navajo Dam as a substation of the Blanco district allows the department to combine manpower and improve ratings, Daugherty said.

“Constituents in the area will not see any changes in service,” Daugherty said. “It’s just administratively under a different district.”

New Mexico uses ratings assessed by a private company called the Insurance Services Office as a metric for funding fire departments. The system awards more money for better ISO scores and reduces amounts for regressions. Daugherty said the all-volunteer Navajo Dam station scored well in every category except personnel. Without the merger, and if scores had continued to falter, his department could have lost $50,000 in state funding, Daugherty said.

Local insurance agencies also use the ISO ratings of fire stations to determine premiums for surrounding communities. Daugherty estimated another bad rating for Navajo Dam could have raised rates 40 to 50 percent.

“It’s a domino effect,” B.J. Brown, an Allstate agent in Farmington, said.

It might not have impacted customers right away, she said, but down the line, 40 to 50 percent rate hikes could have occurred.

Tim Chavez, owner of Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop in Navajo Dam, said he supports the merger if it helps keeps insurance rates low. His parents, Abe and Patsy Chavez, donated land to build the station in 1986.

“As long as we keep the station around, that’s a good thing,” Chavez said.

Basing funding on ISO ratings can create challenges for volunteer fire departments operating in rural areas. Station assessments take multiple factors into account, but rely heavily on water access and manpower, both of which can be hard to come by in parts of the state.

“It’s backwards if you think about it as a consumer,” Daugherty said. “You’d think the state would give them more money to get better. A lot of departments find themselves in a hole they can’t crawl out of.”

Nevertheless, Daugherty said it’s a system his department must conform with, rather than try and change.

“It’s not a battle we want to fight right now,” he said. “It could get better, but right now, we make it work for us.”

Despite the hardships at Navajo Dam, the Flora Vista and Lee Acres districts recently improved their ISO ratings. Daugherty said those developments will increase funding for his department and might lower insurance rates for residents of the districts.

Looking forward, Daugherty said he hopes the department's free fire academy through San Juan College will help recruit a new generation of volunteers.

He noted that due to multiple brush fires on Sunday, all 14 San Juan County fire districts were activated. It was the largest response in his memory.

“It’s all about the volunteers,” Daugherty said. “That’s what makes it possible.”

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606