Vol. firefighters surrender stipend for 10 years to buy new fire truck

After voter rejected a bond to buy the truck, volunteer firefighters gave up their own money

By Steve Ramirez
The Las Cruces Sun-News

MESILLA, N.M. — Twenty of Mesilla's 22 volunteer firefighters don't live in the town. Fire department officials said the two who do are in the process of moving because they can't afford to live there.

But there is still a strong attachment, a strong affinity they have for the town, even though the majority of voters there didn't show the same sentiments. Earlier this year, a $1.5 million bond election that could have provided money to pay for badly needed renovations for the Mesilla Public Safety Building and to purchase a new fire truck was soundly defeated.

"That really hit hard to the association," said Chad Zecha, president of the Mesilla Firefighters Association, of the bond's defeat. "Knowing that the firefighters volunteer here and put their lives on the line, it was a bit of a blow. For a lot of the members it was like a hit in the gut."

After getting over their disappointment, the volunteer firefighters decided to do something about improving the situation themselves. The firefighters proposed to the Mesilla board of trustees that they would give up the $40,000 a year in stipends the town pays them, for 10 years, if the money could instead be used to purchase a new fire truck.

"When they made that proposal I thought "you've got to be kidding,'" Mayor Nora Barraza said. "It's amazing that if it takes 10 years to buy a new fire truck that will provide the entire town with better public safety, they are willing to give up their stipends. Personally, it was so touching that these men and women think so much of Mesilla. that they would sacrifice their own ways of helping to provide for their families to help the community as a whole."

Trustees, with little other options to consider, have approved the proposal and town officials are now searching for the best buy that can be made on a new fire truck. Barraza said she is hopeful a new truck can be bought and in service in Mesilla within six months.

Fire Chief Kevin Hoban said the fire truck is more than just badly needed. Mesilla, since it became an incorporated municipality in 1958, has never bought a new fire truck. Most have been purchased with state funding as used vehicles.

Several years ago the Fire Department got a brand new truck to battle brush fires. But that vehicle, too, was paid for through the state fire fund and donated to the town.

The new fire truck will replace a pumper truck the town bought used in 1986. It currently serves as a backup pumper for fighting structural fires, and as a secondary rescue vehicle. The fire truck only seats two firefighters and can hold 500 gallons of water.

"It's old, and it's hard to get parts for," Hoban said. "In the past two years, we've had to rebuild the pumps on it, and that cost $3,000. It's serviceable, but it is aging out."

Mesilla's primary pumper fire truck is 18 years old, can seat five firefighters and can hold 1,000 gallons of water. That vehicle, too, doesn't meet current recommendations by the National Fire Protection Association for fire trucks.

"Their recommendation is that the first vehicle out (of the fire station) should be no more than 10 years old and the second no more than 15," Hoban said. "I've checked, and Mesilla has the oldest structural firefighting trucks in Doña Ana County. There's no doubt about that."

Last year, the Mesilla Volunteer Fire Department responded to 37 fires. Almost half of those, 18, were within town limits and the others were mutual assistance calls the department was dispatched to.

"The cost of maintenance and operations for these trucks is, and has been, very high," Hoban said. "But fortunately, we have a crew that takes care of its equipment. The public comes in here and they see it all shiny, like it's new. But it isn't."

Neither fire truck is equipped with air conditioning.

"The pump on 31 grinds gears and sometimes it doesn't even engage," said 20-year-old Richard Hernandez, a Mesilla volunteer firefighter, who is six years younger than the fire truck still in service in the town. "The other truck has an old diesel engine in it. If it's cold outside it seems to take forever to start up. So, when seconds count, as they often say when it comes to public safety, that can make a big difference."

Roman Maese, a 22-year-old firefighter who has been a volunteer with the department for six years, said a new fire truck will obviously benefit residents and firefighters alike.

"It'll be great," Maese said. "If something does go off here in Mesilla, one of the older buildings were to catch fire, a flash-over to a second building next door or a building nearby can happen in a minute. It seems like a lot of money, to buy a new fire truck, but everyone is going to save here. This is for the town of Mesilla. It's going to benefit them."

But there are no assurances for the firefighters. Barraza said she is hopeful that as economic conditions improve stipends the town can afford reinstating the firefighters' stipends.

Copyright 2012 Las Cruces Sun-News, a MediaNews Group Newspaper
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