What if you called 911 and no one answered? That could start to happen very soon in rural New Mexico.
Volunteer fire/EMS departments are the one place where political parties, religious differences, and racial and age biases disappear. We are family and depend on one another for the good of our communities. We believe the recently passed and signed New Mexico Civil Rights Act could close our doors.
Qualified immunity is not just a bad-cop issue. In the fire service, fire officers make huge decisions daily that impact human life and safety. Our training obviously helps, but the unpredictable nature of fire makes these decisions difficult. Qualified immunity prevents frivolous and costly lawsuits against these public servants.
Fire service in New Mexico is 88.6 percent volunteer. Some 14 percent of all firefighter lawsuits fall under civil rights violations; most are alleged denial of due process based on the deprivation of life or property.
Without qualified immunity, we predict an exodus of volunteers, especially our most knowledgeable fire officers. Under House Bill 4, a person can only sue the entity; however, if it is deemed a firefighter did not make the right decision in spite of their training, in spite of the explosiveness of the situation, in spite of their very best intentions to consider life safety, then that firefighter still might face civil suits.
We consulted five attorneys in regards to the loss of qualified immunity. Two state the entity can recoup losses from the individual. Who would risk this? Even if found not guilty, hours could be spent in depositions, in court and in production of evidence. These stressful lawsuits take time away from our paid employment and family. Lawsuits wear on personnel. Their effects are lingering. Everyone will be hesitant to respond to critical calls, wondering if this is a situation that might lead to a lawsuit. It will be difficult to find anyone willing to become an officer and a harder time recruiting new personnel.
Another 59.1 percent of EMTs in New Mexico are volunteers. Without qualified immunity, we think there will be a mass exodus of volunteer EMTs who will fear and most likely face civil suits if such immunity is lost. None of us can afford the legal fees of a civil suit, even if we win. None of us can afford to repay the entity we serve if they come after us personally for all or part of the damages they had to pay.
Most of our members are considering leaving the fire/EMS service only because of the loss of qualified immunity. The Mayhill Volunteer Fire Department/Emergency Medical Service is one of the largest fire departments (45 members) and EMS departments (12 EMTs) in the Sacramento Mountains.
What a shame to tear apart a strong, vital service to rural New Mexico, making us less safe and even more underserved. To retain personnel, our department is looking into individual liability insurance.
We asked the New Mexico interim fire marshal (the one who never came to the table for the fire departments of New Mexico) if we would even be allowed to use state fire funds for such a purchase. He is looking into it but has not gotten us an answer, even after three weeks. This much we know: It will be expensive.
Without qualified immunity, we have quotes between $1,000-$5,000 each. Look at our numbers. Insurance could cost $25,000 to $125,000 for firefighters and $12,000 to $60,000 for EMTs yearly.
To put this into perspective, the Mayhill department serves a district of 150 square miles. We have four aging stations; three wildland trucks ($130,000 to $200,000 each); and four structure trucks ($200,000 to $500,000 each), one medical rescue, four command/troop carriers, all needing constant maintenance. Mayhill EMS receives $5,000-$6,000 yearly from the New Mexico Emergency Medical Systems Bureau, about 25 percent of what we spend. Our fire department receives $172,433 yearly for utilities; structural/wildland PPE; equipment; and trucks, repairs, insurance and more. Volunteer fire departments write grants, save and then take out loans.
Our department has firefighters/EMTs with master’s degrees and doctorates. We have retired career firefighters who have volunteered for 10 to 25 years. We have professional nurses in our EMS corps. We are not a bunch of yahoos or wannabes. To deny volunteer firefighters qualified immunity while retaining immunity for themselves shows the lack of respect the New Mexico Legislature has for those in the public service professions. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act could have far-reaching negative results for all of New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, you need to recall this law.