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AZTEC – The San Juan County Commission on Tuesday approved a move by the fire department to staff stations in two districts with volunteers during the daytime to boost response numbers.

The department will begin placing no fewer than two firefighters in stations in District 2 and 6. It plans to begin with two stations and keep them staffed between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day.

The county budgeted about $250,000 to run the program for a year. It will pay volunteers a stipend of no more than $12,300 to be on call in the stations.

There are five stations in Districts 2 and 6, and Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said the department could expand the program if it’s effective.

Commissioner Scott Eckstein asked Daugherty how much the program would improve response times.

“Having folks at the station will definitely improve that,” Daugherty said, adding that it would be hard to quantify that.

Volunteer firefighting is declining nationally – as well as in the county – and County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the county is doing everything it can to prevent switching the department to a paid staff. Officials haven’t calculated the cost, but Carpenter said it would be millions of dollars.

When Daugherty joined the department in 2008, it had about 350 volunteers. Now it has about 280.

Since 1984, 13 percent fewer volunteers throughout the country have taken the time to train to fight fires, according to 2012 National Fire Protection Association data.

About two-thirds of the country’s fire departments depend on volunteers, according to the same data.

Ken Willette, a public fire protection division manager for the association, said in a phone interview before the meeting that the declining number of volunteers is prompting many fire departments that depend on them to transition to partial-paid staff and, in some cases, full-paid staff. The trend is stronger in the northeastern U.S., he said.

He said having fewer firefighters could increase the risk to property and people because response times can be slower. He commended the county for reducing the risk to the community by trying a daytime coverage program.

“It’s a nationwide problem, and there are many different approaches to it," he said.

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

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