Residents angry with fire station closure, slow emergency response

On Special Assignment

When someone calls 911, they want someone to come right away. But in one New Mexico community, people are waiting 15-20 minutes for rescue crews to arrive. They blame the shutdown of their local fire station. 

On Special Assignment, KRQE News 13 found out why the station closed and what it’ll take to get it back.

From the moment she called 911, every minute that passed felt like an eternity for Martha Greenleaf.

“I was very afraid,” Greenleaf told News 13. “With a cardiac event, it just keeps getting worse. When you sit there and you look out the window and you don’t see a fire truck or an ambulance coming, it’s just like you’re gonna sit there and die.”

Greenleaf lives in Mariposa, a community in far northern Rio Rancho. 

More than 15 minutes after calling, paramedics did arrive and Greenleaf was taken to the hospital for a blockage in her heart. That was two years ago. 

“How did you feel when that was happening?” KRQE News 13’s Gabrielle Burkhart asked Greenleaf. “Abandoned. Absolutely abandoned,” Greenleaf replied. 

She’s healthy today, but she’s fired up about the slow response she and her neighbors in Mariposa are receiving for emergency services in far northern Rio Rancho.

Why so slow? 

One of the first things you see when you drive into the community is the Mariposa fire station. But since 2014, Station 6 has sat empty.

“It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not equitable,” Greenleaf said. 

National fire response standards set a travel time goal of four minutes. 

Records show in 2017, there were 38 calls for service from Mariposa. It took Rio Rancho Fire Rescue crews an average of 14 minutes to arrive. 

Last year, there were 37 calls from Mariposa. The average response time was 15 minutes. Some calls took more than 20 minutes for crews to arrive.

In those two years, the City of Rio Rancho had roughly 11,000 total calls for service with an average response time around eight minutes. 

“We still pay for the same right to have that early response that every other citizen in Rio Rancho does,” said Greenleaf. “Just because there’s a little bit of vacant land between us and the city center shouldn’t isolate us.”

‘Foundational problem’ 

Rio Rancho Fire Chief Paul Bearce told KRQE News 13 that Mariposa isn’t alone when it comes to slower response times.

“One of the problems that Rio Rancho has is kind of a foundational problem on how the city grew,” Bearce explained. 

Citygate Associates, a fire and EMS consulting agency, highlighted some of the city’s problems in a 2014 study. 

In the map to the right, the red dots represent Rio Rancho’s six fire stations. The green represents areas with six-minute response times. Anyone living outside the green, Bearce said, will simply take longer to get to. 

“Most city’s start in a very, very tight, small area from a city center or city hall, that type of thing – and they tend to grow out,” Bearce explained. 

Rio Rancho’s infrastructure is more of a donut shape, with pockets of neighborhoods and fire stations built on the outskirts.
            
So in order to improve overall response times for the city, Bearce said he had to pull resources south to the highest call volume areas. 

“It’s very very difficult from our perspective to provide adequate services with the resources that we have to everybody equally,” said Bearce. 

When the Mariposa station was staffed, Bearce said there was always low call volume in Mariposa, so he mostly pulled those firefighters for other calls. 

“It was creating a huge lag in the response for a number of calls that were occurring,” Bearce said. 

Today, Rio Rancho Fire Rescue isn’t fully staffed. Chief Bearce said last year the department lost 17 firefighters, half of them paramedics. Without more funding and staff, the fire chief says they’re doing the best they can.

“I have to put the resources where the calls are in order to do the most good for the most people,” said Chief Bearce. “I absolutely understand and I empathize with their feelings, but we are doing the best we can with our resources that we’ve been given,” he added. 

But knowing she’s not alone in getting a slow response, doesn’t make Greenleaf feel better. 

“If it’s your emergency, how would you feel?” Greenleaf said. “Like they left you out in the cold.”

What needs to change 

So, what would it take to staff Station 6 again? KRQE News 13 asked that question of Rio Rancho Mayor Greg Hull. 

“At this point in time I would say quite a bit more housing volume out there,” Mayor Hull replied. 

When building started there in 2005, the city had 3,000 housing permits for Mariposa that year, Hull said. Then in 2008, the housing market crashed and building stopped. 

“Well, here we are 13 years later and Mariposa still is at only 450 homes today,” Hull explained. 

Currently, there’s evidence of growth. Home builder company flags and construction can be seen across the community. However, funding is still an issue, Hull said. 
    
Staffing Station 6 full time would cost an extra $1 million on top of the city’s $11.5 million fire budget, the mayor said. 

Creative Solutions 

In the meantime, Hull and Bearce claim the city is working on more creative solutions; like using a paramedic ‘fly car,’ an SUV that carries a floater EMS crew anywhere in the city.

The unit is a 24-7 response resource for Rio Rancho, Bearce said. “Our plan someday is once we get the resources to do so, is to put one of those trucks in the north,” Bearce added.  

“We never want anybody to feel abandoned and we always want people to feel safe here,” said Hull. 

Rio Rancho is also aiming to get a helicopter for help with emergency response. The city is working on a partnership with UNMH and Lifeguard Emergency Services to stage a medical helicopter in Mariposa.

Bearce said the plan is to start a four-month trial run with the medical helicopter in April at no cost to the city. As a trade-off for providing space for their medical helicopter in Mariposa, that medical crew would be available to respond to calls for service near Station 6 and perform life-saving techniques until Rio Rancho Fire Rescue can arrive on scene.  

Pending budgetary approval, Bearce said the City of Rio Rancho is also working to add another EMS crew to run an ambulance during peak response hours Monday through Friday. He hopes to have that crew up and running by July. 

Adding staff for public safety and staying competitive with compensation is another challenge, Mayor Hull pointed out. 

When the City of Albuquerque raised its pay for officers, Mayor Hull said that had a detrimental effect on Rio Rancho. So even with additional funding for public safety, the mayor said he’d have to weigh where to place those funds. 

“If we got an additional million dollars today funding, would we hire eight new firefighters and put them out at that station?” The mayor asked rhetorically. “Or would we use that to balance the compensation issues that we’re having on a regional level?” 

“We’re really gonna have to balance that and look at where we can best allocate those dollars,” the mayor added. 

Mayor Hull assures the Mariposa fire station won’t stay closed forever.

“Until we get the funding up there and we start to see a critical mass of homes come up out there, then we’re gonna start to see the lights come back on in that fire station,” Mayor Hull said. 

Still, that doesn’t sit well for people like Greenleaf.  

When she or her neighbors call 911, Greenleaf said, “You’re gonna wait. You’re gonna wait and you don’t have any idea how long it’s gonna be before someone comes to help.”

The City of Rio Rancho provided KRQE with this Fact Sheet regarding Mariposa Fire Station 6.

 
DV.load(“https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5750751-Mariposa-Fire-Station-Fact-Sheet.js”, { responsive: true, container: “#DV-viewer-5750751-Mariposa-Fire-Station-Fact-Sheet” }); Mariposa Fire Station Fact Sheet (PDF)
Mariposa Fire Station Fact Sheet (Text)

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