Sandoval County Fire Department Citizens Academy
by Argen Duncan Rio Rancho Observer posted on FaceBook 11/06/14

I helped rip apart a pickup that didn't belong to me.

It was perfectly legal.

It was part of the Sandoval County Citizens Fire Academy, a program the county fire department is doing to try to help the public better understand what firefighters and emergency medical personnel do. When county Fire Chief James Maxon invited me to join in, it seemed like too interesting of an experience to pass up.

My seven classmates and I have learned about the department in general, fire chaplaincy, fire inspections, vehicle extrication, emergency dispatch, fire extinguishers, fire hoses and hazardous material.

Assistant Fire Chief Brian Culp, who's running the program, told us Sandoval County Fire Department is the sixth-largest of the 399 fire departments in the state.

Personnel serve almost 131,600 people scattered across about 3,700 square miles. Culp says that's 6,000 calls a year, not including what happens in Rio Rancho and Corrales, which are served mainly by their own fire departments.

The county only has 12 professional firefighters plus six command staff members, all in the southern part of the county. People north of here would be in serious trouble without the 250-some-odd volunteer firefighter/EMTs.

Kitchen fires No. 1

On fire inspection and prevention, Fire Marshal Eric Masterson taught us kitchen fires are the No. 1 cause of house fires, which statistically happen more often than commercial building fires.

The take-home lesson I gleaned was to be very careful with anything that gets hot – space heaters, grease on the stove, candles and even bread in a toaster that doesn't shut off automatically. (Yes, toast in an unattended toaster starting a fire was mentioned. I'm pretty sure you can't make that up.)

Also, fire code requirements are there for a reason: to keep people from dying. Just obey them.

The third week, fire personnel let us try out extrication equipment, under supervision.

That was the first time I've worn firefighting bunker gear. It was cumbersome, though not as much as I expected.

Firefighters showed us how to use hydraulic-powered extrication equipment and hand tools. The hydraulic equipment is heavy but works faster.

I was surprised to learn how normally innocent car parts can be dangerous or difficult for firefighters trying to get someone out of a smashed vehicle. Bumpers can fly off and hit someone, undeployed airbags can deploy at the wrong time, etc. Firefighters have to be careful.

Tracks responders

During a trip to the dispatch center, coordinated by dispatcher Stacy Moss, we listened in on various radio channels. Each dispatcher sits in front of six computer screens full of information and keeps track of multiple responders via radio, phone or computer.

The dispatcher handling Rio Rancho Police traffic was juggling requests for information from three or four officers at once, plus trying to make sure they all had necessary backup and to check on any she hadn't heard from in a while. Another dispatcher answered a call on the non-emergency line and found herself handling a life-threatening emergency. (It turned out OK.)

I don't know how dispatchers keep their brains from imploding.

During fire extinguisher training, firefighter Gabe Moss, Stacy's husband, taught us it's important to use the right extinguisher for what's burning. Plus, if it's not a small fire you're sure you can handle safely, let the firefighters take care of it.

He said most fire extinguishers you find in commercial buildings are designed to put out a fire on anything but metal.

We tried extinguishers on small, controlled fires. The proper extinguisher aimed at the base of the flames really does snuff out the fire in seconds.

In another class, firefighters patiently taught us how to adjust the nozzles of fire hoses, sit on the 3-inch-diameter hose to use it by ourselves and work together to move smaller hoses. I didn't realize until we were done how much of an arm workout it was.

Firefighter Joel Naranjo told us about how different streams of water help in different ways, from dousing flames to creating a protective screen to pushing smoke out windows and doors.

Our most recent class was on hazardous materials, courtesy of Deputy Chief Jess Lewis, who was hilarious as well as educational.

Basically, there are a lot of chemicals out there. If they're used improperly, if they're caught in a fire or if the truck hauling large quantities of them leaks, there's a problem. That's why firefighters go through intense training to handle them.

Saturday, we have a final all-day class in CPR, search and rescue, emergency operations center work. It'll be an adventure.

(Argen Duncan has been a reporter with the Rio Rancho Observer since August 2011.)