By Michael Schippling

“We called an ambulance, why’s the fire department here?” a worried relative asked during a lull after we’d arrived to find a 170-pound, 80-year-old patient immobilized at the top of a narrow spiral staircase. The Ghostbusters tag line sprang from my lips.

I joined my local volunteer fire department (VFD) as a probationary member about a year ago. With classroom and hands-on training, I will soon become a member in full standing and be able to drive the trucks with full lights ’n’ sirens.

The VFDs are tasked with showing up and dealing with Your Personal Emergency, 24/7. There are 15 volunteer fire districts in Santa Fe County (Pojoaque, Stanley, Glorieta, Madrid, etc.) organized into four regions by cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). The districts are supported by five county ambulances staffed with two EMTs each and one roving knight-errant—the BC or battalion captain. Since this comes to one paid med unit for approximately every 15,000 people and 150 square miles of the county (the City of Santa Fe has its own paid providers), the VFDs supply almost all of the emergency services available. In the case of the patient at the top of the stairs, two county EMTs could not get her onto a convenient gurney to the hospital on their own, so there we, the fire department, were. And the first on scene to boot.

A large portion of calls are medical, often combined with vehicular mayhem. Once in a while we get a fire to fight.

Trapped in your SUV after rolling off an embankment at the Eldorado exit? Hondo Rescue-1 with County Med80 will be there to extricate you. Having a heart attack at the Camel Rock Casino? Tesuque VFD will come to your aid and Med50 will transport you to “Saint V’s.” Your house on fire in La Tierra? Agua Fria Engine-1 and Med60 will arrive shortly, supported by trucks from the entire region. The new Super Wal-Mart on I-40 mysteriously fills with gas and people are dropping like flies? Edgewood VFD and Med70 are on top of it.

The striking thing is that we have to be prepared for anything. This means when a “29-Delta”—motor vehicle accident with entrapment—call comes in, everything goes out. Something like 49 times out of 100 there’s no entrapment—everybody is walking around with their cups of coffee and cell phones intact. Fifty times out of 100 there’s no actual motor vehicle accident—someone thought they saw a car veer off the road behind them. But that last one. If you’re not there with everything you’ve got, bad stuff happens. You never know if this is the 150 mph head-on involving the family of five until you get on scene.

The VFDs get support from state coffers but we also hold bake sales to help buy new trucks, which can easily ramp up to $250,000—admittedly with some bells and whistles. Our main “attack engine”—fire truck to civilians—holds 1,000 gallons of water, can pump 1,250 gallons per minute at around 150 pounds per square inch, is “CAFS”—fire-fighting foam—equipped, carries six “SCBAs”—think SCUBA minus the underwater—three ladders, about 2,000 feet of hose and three firefighters. We also have tankers (more water, smaller pump), an advanced life support medic unit and a rescue truck that contains tools that our highly trained volunteers can use to stabilize your vehicle and rip it apart, quite gently all things considered, in less than 10 minutes.

The department organization is a hybrid of paramilitary structure, democratic operation and socialist principle. Officers are nominated by committee and elected by the members every year. They get titles such as chief, captain and lieutenant, and nominally take charge of incidents.

However, the first competent person who shows up at an emergency scene is encouraged to take command and start giving orders, and, unless they step aside or are doing more damage than good, they keep that command throughout. Anyone who feels that there is a safety issue can and should call a pause in operations. And when it’s all over everyone from chief to proby helps reload the trucks.

You may have noticed an interesting tidbit in the fire-truck specs above: 1,000 gallon tank, 1,250-gallons-per-minute pump. At full tilt we can pump ALL our water onto a big fire in less than a minute. Since only a few districts have plentiful fire hydrants, almost all the water that comes to fight a fire is trucked in. How do we get more? Therein lies an interesting construct.

When a structure fire alarm is broadcast in the Galisteo district it sends everything it’s got. But everyone else in the eastern region chips in a tanker and we all hope it’s enough. To fulfill our International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification requirements—supply 250 gallons per minute for two hours—a tanker needs to arrive every 12 minutes.

In this water shuttle, each Tanker sploots its contents into a dump tank (we use one as a pond during our Fourth of July picnic) and makes haste to refill at a convenient water source. The attack engine pumps the water out of the tank and sends it to the firefighters at the business end of the hoses. In some areas we’re lucky to get just a single truck up the driveway—don’t even think about getting back down. In these cases we have the dump tanks on the street and a second pumper relays water up to the scene. This is the reason each engine carries 1,200 feet of supply hose.

During a recent 1:30 am fire in La Cienega’s district, the first engine arrived 13 minutes after the alarm went out and regional tankers began arriving about 15 minutes later. This includes folks waking up, getting to their stations and driving apparatus to the scene. Then visualize draining and re-loading 1,200 feet of hose at
3 am.

It lends some excitement to my otherwise sedentary life.

Michael Schippling is an artist, engineer and, most recently, a volunteer firefighter.