Fire Chief Murtagh plans for fire season… and beyond

Since implementing fire restrictions in village limits Jan. 10, Angel Fire Fire Chief John Murtagh has hosted a series of public information meetings, an interagency helicopter wildland firefighting training, broke ground on a new fire station, sent a wild-land team to battle a blaze elsewhere in New Mexico and shared a 24-page report with village council members — all in an effort to boost village preparedness for fire season… and beyond.

The Angel Fire Fire Department hosted an Interagency Aerial (Helicopter) Wild land Firefighting Training earlier this month in Black Lake. (Courtesy photo)

An affable, plain-spoken man, Murtagh came to the department with 26 years total experience in Fire and emergency medical services, including 25 years of service to the Bernalillo County Fire Department. He was appointed interim chief in February 2017 and took the permanent posting soon thereafter. Since then, Murtagh has made it his mission to assure that his department — and community members — are prepared for fire emergencies.

“Every action we take and every class we attend is intended to prepare us for the delivery of services to people who may be facing the worst day of their lives,” Murtagh wrote in his annual report.

The goal is to have the community ready in case of a catastrophic event, Murtagh told The Chronicle in a telephone interview.

AF Fire Department Annual Report

In addition to drafting a new mission and vision statement for the department, the chief aims to make the village safer and, as a result, make homes less expensive to insure. 

“Out current ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating is a 5,” Murtagh told council during a special March work session. “We’re working very hard to get that to a 4.”

In a nutshell, ISO is a for-profit agency that rates fire departments on a national scale from one (the highest score) to 10.

“ISO is used by insurance companies in most states to evaluate fire departments for the purpose of establishing insurance premiums in the local areas,”Murtagh wrote. “In states using ISO, Fire Alarm, Fire Department, and Water Supply are measured in the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS).”

One way communities address this is by having more than one fire station with closer proximity to more homes and businesses. Toward that end, the village is building a new station, Fire Station #3, at #20 Darrell Benjamin Road, which is “being constructed and will be operated with State Fire Protection Funds,” Murtagh noted.

Work continues on Fire Station #3 Tuesday (April 24). (Courtesy photo)

Maintaining and replacing equipment is also key — the department is replacing one of its brush trucks (council approved purchase of a new Type 5 engine at its April 24 meeting), for example — as is training.

“The New Mexico State Fire Academy recognizes the International Fire Service Accreditation Certificate (IFSAC) as minimum standards in all things related to firefighting,” Murtagh wrote. “As such, for all full-time employees, IFSAC is the minimum standard at AFFD.… For our volunteer personnel, the minimum training standard is completion of the mini-academy in Red River and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certification.”

Finding enough volunteers as a problem Angel Fire’s department — along with many other departments — faces. With an average age of 50 and older, Murtagh said, “What we’re seeing across the country is a decline in volunteers.”

He hopes to change that though the department’s Junior Firefighter and Internship programs. “Young people want careers,” Murtagh told council in March. Further, referring to the Junior Firefighter program, he wrote, “Not only does this program provide an activity to our local teens, but it gives them direction into a potential profession.”

Department visibility in the community is also key and, toward that end, the department is hosting several special events and making appearance at village events. “This spring, the Angel Fire Police Department and Fire Department will host a Public Safety Day for all members of our Community to come out and see what their Public Safety Departments are all about,” Murtagh wrote. Additionally, “For this Year’s 4th of July, rather than discouraging fireworks, we will provide a safe area for kids of all ages to enjoy their legal fireworks near Allen Fields.”

As part of the department’s ongoing public relations effort Jared Johnson of the Angel Fire Fire Department demonstrates fire extinguisher safety while Chief Murtagh (back right) and others in the community observe during the August 2017 Wellness Fair. (Chronicle file photo)

Looking to the future

In Angel Fire’s early days (1978) a group of residents banded together to form the Moreno Valley Community Corporation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation and built the Stromberg Building, which housed the village’s first library, healthcare clinic and dentist and, now, the Fire Station #1. That space has posed challenges for the department.

At press time, Murtagh was preparing a flyer to be handed out to Northern New Mexico Gas Company customers. I just want people to look on social media and in their utility billing for information on Angel Fire and Colfax County’s burn ban and mass-notification system.”

The department is expanding, Murtagh said, adding the station’s space is limited as far as meeting department needs, and it needs repairs. More immediate needs include new vehicles, including an ambulance, and additional training such as rope rescue training and ice rescue training. 

As reported in The Taos News, the eight-hour helicopter training “focused on water drops and how local firefighters communicate with helicopters during takeoff and landing.

“With the way the fire season is shaping up, we just want to be prepared,” Murtagh told The Taos News.

“Finally,” Murtagh wrote. “I would like to add three full time Firefighter/EMT’s to our staff (one per shift). As volunteerism is in decline, we will need that extra person so our crews can operate safely at fire scenes.”

Helicopter Training

(Courtesy photos)