SPRINGER, N.M. (KRQE) – A New Mexico town is working to rebuild its fire department after the chief, who was the last firefighter left in the department, upped and quit.
His resignation came in the wake of an inspection of the severely understaffed department, and the town leaders really do not want to answer questions about what happened.
Boe Lopez is the Mayor of Springer in northeastern New Mexico. The town of about 1,000 people gets money from the state to help run its volunteer fire department to keep people safe and to keep insurance rates for residents from skyrocketing.
However, over the last few months, the department’s had problems, culminating last month with the resignation of the fire chief. That left Springer with a fire station and no firefighters.
“It’s a small village and the number of volunteers available is really limited. So to lose the ones they had, I mean, I never expected to see them lose the whole group,” said Bill Fulginiti, Executive Director of the New Mexico Municipal League.
The nonprofit advises cities around the state on government issues.
“I think you will find that it is unusual that you would have all of your volunteers go away. I’ve been at this 42 years, and I’ve never seen that before,” Fulginiti said.
One red flag popped up in August. A New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s office inspection found 25 deficiencies with the Springer Fire Department, including problems with recordkeeping, equipment and training.
On top of that, a report from then-Fire Chief Richard Whited noted he was the only responder in the department—that is, until he resigned at the beginning of October.
The State Fire Marshal’s office said a department needs to have enough firefighters to make sure at least four trained members can respond at any given time. It suggests having 12 volunteers total to meet that minimum response requirement.
“We take fire protection seriously. I think the community of Springer takes their fire protection seriously. Unfortunately, you know, there’s a time where staffing levels have dropped,” interim Fire Marshal John Kondratick said.
News 13 spoke with him two days after the resignation of Springer’s chief. Kondratick said the town was working on an agreement with other volunteer departments in the area to respond to emergencies in the meantime, but that it’s a temporary measure.
“We would like to see that a community utilizing our fire protection funds and available funds be able to obtain the resources necessary to provide quality fire protection to their community,” he said.
Springer gets $61,403 from the state’s fire protection fund, according to the State Fire Marshal.
How much they get and how much residents pay for fire insurance, all comes down to how they’re rated by the Insurance Services Office. One is the best and ten is the worst.
State Fire Marshal’s office said Springer got a rating of six back in 2017.
“If they were to be surveyed today, what would their rating be?” KRQE asked while meeting with the acting State Fire Marshal.
“I believe that their rating would drop to a 10 just because of the limited staffing levels that they have at this time,” Kondratick replied.
“I don’t want my insurance to know that probably, you know, but I know there’s a shortage of people that would even be able to volunteer or that would be qualified,” Springer resident Peggy Price said.
Price lives across the street from the Springer Fire Station and said she had no idea the fire chief resigned.
That’s what concerns Anna Phillips on the town council. She said she wants to make sure people are aware of the situation.
“It’s absolutely important because the people in this town don’t really know what’s going on,” Phillips said.
Over the phone last month, Mayor Boe Lopez told News 13 he hired an interim fire chief and had people applying to volunteer as firefighters, but he wouldn’t meet for an interview to discuss how all this happened and how he is going to keep it from happening again.
Before a public meeting in Springer, others on the Town Council refused to talk.
Mayor Pro-Tem Rebecca Ramirez, Trustee Luella Smith and Trustee Joe Apodaca all said, “No comment.”
When Mayor Lopez arrived, he just ignored questions.
“You don’t want to talk about the fire department?” KRQE asked.
The mayor did not respond. He would only discuss the fire department during the council meeting when, again, he didn’t have to answer any questions.
“So, the concern is addressed. We’re well aware of it,” Mayor Lopez said. “The issue, it was just the chief resigned and so we’re reorganizing and putting together a group.”
He said the town had a good turnout at a meeting of interested volunteer firefighters.
“We will get our meeting schedule set up and continue on with training and further meetings,” the mayor explained.
The State Fire Marshal’s office said it will likely visit Springer later this month to see if the department has corrected the problems it found during the last inspection.
“The equipment and everything is very poorly maintained over there, so is the office. Everything. It’s gonna be a big process to fix it up,” said Springer resident Jenell Ross during the council meeting.
Still, volunteers are stepping up and people are hopeful.
“Anybody else that would like to volunteer, we would love to have you,” Ross said.
The meeting ended, and the mayor was the first one out of the room.
“Why don’t you want to sit down for an interview?” KRQE asked as Lopez hurried out.
The State Fire Marshal’s office said Springer has since recruited eight firefighters.
To get a good rating from the Insurance Services Office, they’ll have to keep those volunteer numbers up for a couple more years when they’re expected to be surveyed again. The Fire Marshal said that should happen in 2021.