Angel Fire Fire Department is in desperate need of funding to replace decades-old equipment and vehicles, but without sufficient government funding, the small rural department has turned to private donors to fix a massive budget shortfall.
Kevin Henson, both the fire and emergency medical services chief for the Village of Angel Fire, stepped out before a crowd of 70 people — plus 996 viewers who logged in via webinar — in late November to detail just how desperate the situation has become.
As Henson went through a slideshow presentation, it became clear the department’s vehicles were in disrepair, and several of the most critical ones — such as the pumper-tender, and a secondary fire engine — had failed recent tests or seemed poised to do so.
With a small village budget and a population of just 773 as of 2019, Angel Fire Fire Department and EMS Services have been exhausting their equipment, and personnel, by covering a larger territory with an ever-slimming crew.
Failing equipment, low department rating
Henson explained while the village allocates some money for fire equipment, much of it comes from the state’s Fire Protection Fund. The money a department stands to receive is dependent on a department’s ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating, which ranks the effectiveness and quality of fire departments on a scale from 1 to 10.
The Fire Protection Fund allocated a total of $20 million to state fire departments this year and awarded $25,000 to Angel Fire's department. Senate Bill 256, signed into law in April, removes a previous requirement that a portion of the money in the fund transfer over to the General Fund at the end of each fiscal year.
Currently, Angel Fire has an ISO rating of 5, but Chief Henson explained the lower rating is, in part, due to the fact that the department's equipment is failing. During last month's meeting, he showed a video of their equipment being tested. The pumper-tender, which carries 1,400 gallons of water and is a necessary piece of equipment in rural areas, was shown leaking from all sides. Henson said it's the only pumper-tender in the entire fleet.
The “second-out” firetruck, or the truck that establishes a water supply and changes and checks backup hoses, he said, isn't functioning at all. “Right now, we do not have a backup engine,” he said. All of this greatly affects a department’s ISO rating, which in turn can affect home insurance premiums.
“If our ISO was to be downgraded, or if we left a station without an engine for a prolonged amount of time, we would lose one-third of our funding from the state fire fund,” said Henson. “If that happens, the risk goes up considerably for the insurance companies.
“Risk profiles have everything to do with fire pumps and with your backup water source. We train to back out as soon as one of those things goes wrong,” he said. “Two of those things have gone wrong and we haven’t even had a fire yet.”
Henson said the next ISO rating assessment is two years out, and he hopes to get the department in working order by that time.
The obstacle, however, is receiving the funding the low ISO rating is preventing them from obtaining in the first place.
Henson said the November meeting had been called at the last minute because he had found a pumper-tender in Oklahoma that would meet the needs of the department and solve the immediate ISO concern. The problem was they needed to make a commitment to purchase the truck by the end of the week, and they needed the money first. The used truck costs $346,000.
Henson explained they had requested money for a new pumper-tender and money for volunteer training and retention from the state’s Fire Protection Fund, but the $25,000 awarded would be for volunteer training.
“We got $41,100 yesterday, another person pledged $50,000, and there’s an additional $50,000 pledged upon the sale of a private residence. So we are seeking donations for $205,173, and that is just for the pumper tender," Henson said.
He also said that they were in desperate need of $650,000 to replace the second fire engine, which is 33 years old. Henson said the cost to repair the engine just to test it again would be $54-60,000, and that it would be much smarter to replace it altogether.
However, this money would have to come out of the village’s emergency cash reserves, which total $1.1 million. Any donations collected past the amount needed for the tender would go to replenish the village’s emergency reserves.
“[We’re reaching] out to the community to educate and seek potential donations to offset spending emergency reserves to procure a new pumper-tender that could be placed into service quickly,” he explained.
Members of the public questioned why the equipment had not been maintained. Henson, who has been chief since February of this year, acknowledged that in the past “our fleet has not always been well maintained, but as long as the mayor chooses to employ me, it will be maintained.” He brought up the limited local budget and state funding as possible reasons for the failures as well.
“I had no reason to believe our trucks were going to fail the pump test,” he said, but pointed out that it was good to have “a catastrophic failure in a test and not in a fire.”
One resident at the meeting asked what many watching online were wondering: “What do you need from us now?”
Henson said “$224,000 is the magic number we need to have pledged for the council tomorrow to take action to buy that pumper-tender,” he said. “If you’re willing to support this, come talk to us tonight, let us get your name and number and the amount of money that you could pledge.”
“I think this is our opportunity to literally put our money where our mouth is,” said Village Councilor Matt Billingsley during the public comments. “We can either address this now … or we can kick the can down the road … then in ten years, when this place is uninsurable, in disrepair, and nobody wants to live here because we burned down, then what? Can we, out of the love for our community, come up with some money to make sure that we’re taken care of?”
Angel Fire community comes together
It appears as if Angel Fire residents heeded Henson and Billingsley’s pleas.
As of press time Wednesday (Dec. 1), Henson said they had met the goal, and raised a total of $302,000, and money was still coming in.
Dr. David Hartson has been an Angel Fire resident since 1997. He has seen the village slowly grow and is currently the chairman of the Fire Adaptive Committee, which focuses on wildland fires. He said he felt the residents and property owners of Angel Fire “stepped up” to meet the need.
“I think the general sentiment is that this is a true community. People look after each other, and when there is a need like this, people step up. I think it speaks volumes about the public. That is Angel Fire,” he said.
“Bureaucracies are necessary in a way, but they tend to be very slow to respond. And in this case, had the community not stepped up, we would have lost the opportunity to have this equipment sometime in January,” added Hartson, who said it likely would have taken a year or two to find another pumper-tender, creating “a lot more risk.”
Angel Fire Mayor Jo Mixon said she was happy to see locals rally to support the cause. “Our residents and our property owners are just amazing. They have such a community spirit that it's overwhelming. I love this place,” she said.
“We’re in this together. We’re not a very large village, but we swell to thousands of people,” she added. “As small communities, we help all the little places around us, so having good equipment is important to the entire Moreno Valley.”
“The outpouring of donations collected initially in 24 hours to buy the used fire tender truck was astounding. It shows the affection, as well as concern, that many have for our community,” said Angel Fire resident Marcia Wood.
“I think Angel Fire gets it,” added Chief Henson.
While the donations and support have been a great help to get the fire department back on its feet, Henson explained running a fire and EMS department in a small village still leaves them facing additional hurdles.
“We're very short staffed for the amount of calls that we're running right now,” he said. Currently, they are in need of two more full time workers, three part time workers, and five volunteers.
“When a call comes in at night that we need extra people, it's me, or the captain, or volunteers, or calling employees back on overtime so that they can help make it happen.”
It also doesn’t help that Angel Fire is now picking up EMS services for Eagle Nest after the village’s own services went belly-up this past summer due to staffing problems.
Henson said finding and training volunteers has become harder as well. “Volunteerism on the whole is in decline. It's just a different generation and it's harder to get people to volunteer.”
He also said the whole Angel Fire and Moreno Valley area was having trouble finding and retaining employees. “We just don't have enough people in the valley that can live here to volunteer here. I think part of that is the high cost of housing here.”
Training volunteers also involves sending them to the Firefighters Training Academy in Socorro, and it can be hard for a volunteer to take two to three weeks off to complete the training, said Henson. He noted that he’s been working with Taos County Fire & EMS to bring a fire academy to Northern New Mexico. “That’s really what needs to happen, because all of us are benefiting from volunteers and we all want to have high standards of training.”
Henson hopes to see the state step up to provide additional funding for rural fire and EMS departments, which he said are “absolutely” underfunded. “We received less than $10,000 to run our ambulance service, and that didn't even pay for medications,” he said.
Being on the board of directors for the New Mexico Fire Chiefs Association, Henson said they are always looking for ways to increase the funding stream. He said they are aware of potential legislation to help in the upcoming session.
“The state has over a billion dollars in excess that needs to be funded or that needs to be spent, but we'll be competing against every other county or municipality request that comes in,” he said. According to the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, there are 195 fire departments across New Mexico. Angel Fire's Fire Department is just one of eight in Colfax County. In Taos County there are also eight fire departments.
Henson is trying to stay optimistic, but admitted that if the department can't find enough employees and properly replace all of the equipment, “we're just not gonna have enough people on scene for us to do a safe, interior fire attack.”
To donate to the Angel Fire Fire Department, call Chief Kevin Henson at 575-377-3347.