County firefighters want daytime volunteers

Dan Schwartz
Chris Hare, a firefighter with San Juan County Fire Department District 2, works to extinguish a grass fire on March 29, 2014, at 720 County Road 3000 between Farmington and Flora Vista.

FARMINGTON — The San Juan County Commission is scheduled on Tuesday to consider approving the fire department’s final steps toward staffing five stations in two districts with volunteers during the daytime.

The department plans to place no fewer than two firefighters in the stations in District 2 and 6 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day. If the program is successful, Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said the department may expand it.

“We’re just trying to beef up our daytime response,” he said.

The department has about 280 firefighters, but they’re all volunteers. This means firefighters who are working during the day can’t always get to a scene, so sometimes the number responding is small, officials say. Most calls are for emergency medical services.

Officials say attracting volunteers is becoming harder while call volumes are rising. Daugherty said in 2008, when he joined, the department had about 350 volunteers, 20 percent more than now. And each year brings 300 to 500 more calls for service, he said.

Firefighters with San Juan County Fire Department District 2 extinguish a fire on March 29, 2014, at 720 County Road 3000 between Farmington and Flora Vista.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said officials are doing everything they can to avoid switching to a paid force, which would cost the county millions of dollars more to run. He said they haven’t calculated the cost yet because they’re far from considering the change.

The county budgeted about $250,000 this fiscal year to run the new fire department program. The department plans to pay volunteers a stipend of no more than $12,300 a year to sit on-call in the stations.

Carpenter said firefighters have still been responding to fires and accidents during the day — there's been no gap — but the new program will probably send more firefighters.

“There’s only so much a volunteer can do,” he said.

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