Barbara Salas remembers the day she decided to become a paramedic. She was a teenager working at the city of Santa Fe’s Tino Griego Pool when another swimmer spotted a young girl floating facedown in the water.
Salas sprang into action, clearing the pool, rescuing the girl and performing CPR on her motionless body. By the time city paramedics arrived, the youngster was still unconscious but had begun breathing again.
“I remember being relatively calm with the situation,” Salas said in a recent interview. “Like it was a calling.”
Salas, who was 16 when she started working full time for the city of Santa Fe, will retire this spring at the age of 40 as the highest-ranking member of the city fire department. While she was eligible for retirement four years ago, Salas said she remained fire chief because she was happy doing the work.
Mayor David Coss appointed Salas as chief in the summer of 2009 after Chris Rivera retired from the job. Rivera was subsequently elected to the City Council. But Salas said she has her sights set now on her family life and her 7-year-old son.
“My first priority is going to be a full-time mom,” she said. “I think being in the chief position [comes] with a lot of responsibility, and it is hard to give 100 percent to both.”
Salas earned a paramedic license from The University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in 1998. She worked as a paramedic until 2004, when she was promoted to fire inspector in the Fire Prevention Division. She became a fire marshal in 2007.
Salas broke down barriers as the first female to head the city’s fire department, but she says there was too much hype about her gender when she was named to the post.
“I feel like a firefighter is a firefighter,” she said. “Whether I was male or female, I would still have the same difficulties. I was probably challenged more often because of that. But that was internally, not externally. The community seems to accept a female fire chief easier than the department does.”
When Salas leaves at the end of May, Assistant Chief Erik Litzenberg will be named to the chief position, City Manager Robert Romero said. Litzenberg, who as assistant chief and public information officer has taken on a number of public leadership roles, has a master’s degree and anticipates completing his doctorate in philosophy next year. He’s been with the city fire department since 1997.
The next fire chief will doubtless face a growing city population and an increasing number of calls, particularly requests for emergency medical care. Santa Fe’s boundaries are set to expand with the planned annexation of nearly 10,000 acres. The second of three phases of the annexation plan is supposed to be executed this summer and will add about 13 percent to the city fire department’s territory, bringing in land north and south of Tierra Contenta and on either side of Airport Road, along with a population of nearly 13,000 “new” city residents. It’s not clear when the third annexation phase will kick in, but at its culmination, the city will have grown by more than 15 square miles.
Last year, city voters rejected a proposed bond issue that would have, in part, paid for construction of a fire station on the city’s southwestern edge. Salas said she believes the defeat of that proposal was her biggest failure as fire chief. The department still needs an additional station on that side of the city to provide urban-level services in the annexation territory and to improve response times in areas already densely populated, she said. For now, officials in the city and county have agreed on a plan to share responsibilities in the area and allow the city to use a county fire station in the interim.
Another looming issue for the next chief, she said, is the threat of an “inevitable” major wildfire on the north or east side. While local fire officials have tried to encourage people who live on the forest edge to clear a defensible space around their homes, that effort has fallen short, she said.
“Ignorance is bliss. I think that is why people moved up there,” she said. “They love their trees, and they love being right up against the mountainside, and for us to come in and say that you need to cut all the way around your house and you need to thin, that is not what they want to hear. Like any other disaster, I think it is easy to look the other way and say that it is not going to happen to us.”
Contact Julie Ann Grimm at 986-2017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julieanngrimm.