TAOS, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a nationwide problem being felt right here in New Mexico- a decline in people joining volunteer fire departments. The Taos County Volunteer Fire Department said it’s in ‘critical’ need of more volunteers.

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“We could buy the most expensive fire truck known to man. We could buy the nicest gear. But if we don’t have people, if we don’t have people to operate those then really we’re a stagnant department,” said James Hampton, the Taos County Fire Marshal. “Our most critical need right now is just people.”

While the county’s EMS service is paid, the fire department is mostly volunteer. The Fire Chief and Fire Marshal are the only two paid positions within the department. Right now, the department has 170 volunteer firefighters to cover its 13 fire districts throughout the county. But department leaders said realistically, oftentimes only two or three people respond to a call.

“On paper, we have the numbers. But in reality, the number of people who routinely respond to calls and the number on paper, those are two very different numbers,” said Hampton.

“If we have a structure fire, we’re pulling in resources from other districts which essentially is leaving their district almost uncovered and unprotected,” said Michael Cordova, Taos County Fire Chief.

Hampton and Cordova said there are a few reasons that could be behind the low response. Cordova said many of its volunteers have been with the department for 40 years, with two members in their 80s. Cordova said they’re tired and members are often time with their family. He also said volunteers can often get stuck at their day job when a call comes in.

“Go do this dangerous job for free or I need to make a paycheck for my family,” said Cordova. Younger generations also may join the volunteer for a few years then move on to work at a department where they get paid. The shortage of people proved its impact during last week’s damaging winds. Hampton said they are still cleaning up and need volunteer firefighters to watch over burns of trees and debris that have been removed.

The department wants to change people’s idea that one only fights fires when joining the department. “We definitely need people who are capable of doing that and want to do that, that’s very important. But we also have other jobs on the fire ground that people can fill…running a firetruck that has a pump, helping with logistical support, you know, establishing water supply,” said Hampton. “We have so many other opportunities to help. So, really there’s a position for anybody that wants to come and help.”

Cordova and Hampton said it’s a community service that’s worth it. “It’s a difficult job. It takes a lot of character. It takes a lot of dedication. But the rewards are massive,” said Hampton.

The department said it is actively trying to recruit more volunteers through banners on fire stations, social media outreach, and continuing school programs teaching kids about firefighting. It said its most effective tool is old-fashion word-of-mouth.

Anyone interested in learning more about volunteering with the department can call the department’s administration at 575-737-6430.