EL PASO, Texas (KTSM)– Running towards the things most run away from, volunteer firefighters were one of the first on the lines facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
In El Paso, about 200 firefighters are volunteer, and according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, about 70% of the country’s firefighters are unpaid.
“Everybody here is here because they want to be here, they’re here because they want to be part of the solution,” Manuel Maldonado, the assistant fire chief of West Valley Fire said.
The West Valley fire department in Vinton, TX services Anthony, Vinton, Canutillo, as well as offers mutual aid to El Paso and parts of New Mexico, covering nearly 26.1 square miles.
“One of our goals is to always make it seamless, the person calling 911 should never know the difference between paid and volunteer, we’re all professional firefighters first and foremost,” Maldonado said.
At West Valley Fire, new volunteer candidates must undergo a six month probation period where they learn skills and drills hands-on to prepare for answering calls. However, COVID-19 changed the way it was done.
“All of our training went online so every single Thursday night we would log in from where everyone was in town,” Maldonado said.
Only recently returning to in-person training, volunteers learned throughout most of the pandemic over the computer screen like many others across the nation. Maldonado said once the department reached 80% vaccinations, they felt safe enough to come back for in-person training.
“COVID calls have gone down recently,” Chief Boyd Smith said. “When the pandemic hit, it started slow, spiked, went back down and now its low which is great.”
Some drills the volunteers learn is how to don their gear in the appropriate amount of time. They try and get suited up in 60 seconds or less for fire calls, but when going to a medical call, new protocols may take a bit longer.
“People still need our help, people still call 911 needing our help so that’s our job,” Smith said, “We just got smart about the PPE we use and make sure members were wearing the right PPE whereas before they would just wear a pair of gloves and now it’s more than that with the mask and gowns.”
But El Paso County Emergency Service District 2 Chief Roger Esparza said PPE was not easy to come by and continues to be a struggle to this day.
“When the pandemic hit prices soared, nobody could’ve been ready for what came with that,” Esparza said. “A box of gloves we normally buy for 8-10 dollars were now 30 dollars and it was difficult to find them.”
Plus, some volunteer stations saw a drop of volunteers.
“We have to make it work, if we are not a fulltime paid department its because legislation has not allowed us to up the taxes to make it a paid department,” Esparza said.
Esparza said stations are in search of volunteers. ESD #2 services communities of El Paso County: Anthony, Canutillo, Clint, Fabens, Montana Vista, San Elizario, Socorro, Tornillo and Vinton.
“Generally, I like to help people I like to be the shoulder to lean on during most desperate times,” Edmundo Carlos, a volunteer firefighter said. “We are a volunteer, not paid so everything we do is from the bottom of our heart.”