BLOOMFIELD — At times last year, Bloomfield's volunteer firefighters were slow to respond to medical calls and structure fires, according to city officials and documents.
Though a $1 million federal grant finalized Monday will pay for firefighters to work 24 hours a day for the next two years, city officials said the firefighters likely won't be able to keep their jobs when the grant expires in summer 2016.
Bloomfield, a city of about 8,000, has three paid firefighters and 28 volunteers. The paid firefighters work weekdays during normal business hours. The volunteers respond to calls at nights and on weekends.
Officials say there were problems with volunteers' response times last year.
"It was one of the worst years we've ever had for lengthy responses and people not responding," said Bloomfield Assistant Fire Chief John Mohler said.
In 2013, Bloomfield's paid firefighters responded to calls within city limits in an average of four minutes. On nights and weekends, the volunteers took an average of about 10 minutes to respond to a call for service, Mohler said.
The Farmington Fire Department has paid firefighters on staff at all times. Battalion Chief Dave Burke said the city responded to emergency calls in five to six minutes in 2013, and there wasn't much of a difference in response time between days, nights and weekends.
In the last six months of 2013, Bloomfield's volunteer firefighters didn't respond to 13 medical calls within city limits. In all 13 of those cases, the city's ambulance was out of city limits on another call.
In those situations, the patients waited for a San Juan Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Services ambulance from Aztec or Crouch Mesa to respond, which at times took more than 30 minutes to arrive, according to city documents.
Residents in Bloomfield are more likely to wait for ambulance services than residents in other parts of the county because the San Juan Regional Medical Center's EMS ambulance based out of Bloomfield responds south on U.S. Highway 550 and east on U.S. Highway 64 to the county limit, said Ed Horvat, the manager of the hospital's emergency medical services.
"They're at somewhat of a disadvantage because the (Bloomfield) ambulance spends more time out of district than the other ones," Horvat said.
The hospital operates seven ambulances throughout the county. Three are in Farmington, and the other four are in Bloomfield, Aztec, Crouch Mesa and Kirtland.
In addition to having an ambulance that responds to a large area, Bloomfield recently has had more emergency medical calls than Aztec.
In 2013, there were an average of 82 EMS calls in Aztec per month and 92 in Bloomfield, Horvat said.
There were also cases last year in which Bloomfield volunteer firefighters were slow to respond to fires.
On May 4, it took volunteer firefighters 11 minutes to arrive at a structure fire at 1407 Elizabeth St. By then, the fire had enveloped the home and was spreading to a neighbor's home.
Firefighters stopped the blaze from reaching a third home, but two homes were completely destroyed, according to city documents.
Three weeks later, it took two firefighters seven minutes to respond to a grass fire on West Broadway Avenue, and two additional firefighters arrived two minutes later.
The fire spread to a nearby home and destroyed the first floor and damaged the basement, according to city documents.
Mohler said firefighters should be able to respond to a fire within Bloomfield's city limits in four minutes, according to the National Fire Protection Association standard for a city its size.
Despite the issues last year, Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein said residents haven't voiced concerns about the size of the fire department to city officials.
And city officials are skeptical about growing the department.
Bloomfield City Manager David Fuqua, in a letter to city councilors on Feb. 28, suggested the city not accept the $1 million federal grant because Bloomfield has historically kept grant-funded employees on city tax rolls after the grants expire.
He said Bloomfield can't afford to increase the size of the fire department and councilors shouldn't think about growing the department's size until a study is completed.
At the Monday meeting, city councilors voted to accept the grant but said firefighters hired with grant money should understand their positions likely won't be continued once the grant expires.
"I'm not going to debate that more firemen wouldn't possibly be better, but the timing is just not right and we really don't know the cost-benefit due to no study being performed," Fuqua said in a letter. "There is a reason it has not happened in 30 years. (Bloomfield Fire Chief) George (Duncan) and I had this talk and I thought he understood."Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.