Sam Espinoza stands in front of a Wellington Fire truck. Espinoza was one of the first members of the department.
Wellington's volunteer fire department chief, Sam Espinoza, plans to retire on Jan. 3, 2010.
Espinoza started fighting fires in 1964 as a wildland firefighter in Emery County, when he was drafted. In 1972, sitting over coffee with two buddies, he helped start the Wellington department. The original three included Chief Paul Childs, Assistant Chief Darwin Thayne, and, of course, Assistant Chief Sam Espinoza. The department started with three hats and four jackets, which they had to requisition from city employees. There were no boots, because they didn't fit.
Later, Espinoza became the safety officer, a position he held until he took over as chief a couple of years ago. At first, there was no required training. Since that time, training has become an integral part of the department.
The majority of calls the force handles are medical emergencies, which are right up their alley, because all firefighters in Wellington are certified Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT). In addition to EMT training, every member must complete Firefighter 1 and Firefighter II certifications. These credentials require completion of different skill demonstrations, as well as tests that include 150 questions for each part of the certification.
One of Espinoza's favorite memories is when the Manning Bridge was set on fire. The bridge, which is a railroad bridge made from railroad ties soaked in oil, took almost 48 hours to extinguish. That fire posed a problem, because firefighters had to drive out to East Carbon to reach the other side of the bridge. In addition, water had to be delivered to them.
The department's response to an oil fire several years ago proved to be an excellent learning experience. When firefighters arrived, the fire had no flames, but after the men were located in the middle of a rock pit, there was an explosion. Flames immediately reignited. No one was hurt from Wellington, but the incident provided sufficient proof that training was needed, so that loss of life would not be a future outcome.
With 38 years of structure and 46 years of wildland experience, Espinoza has a total of 84 years of firefighting experience. While he admits that the number of years in his extensive work history may constitute double dipping, his years of experience are in different areas. He considers himself the most experienced firefighter in Utah, although he admits he cannot prove it.
Espinoza also traveled to Alaska to fight fires. He was stationed north of the Arctic Circle, near the Black River, for 21 days. The village, with a population of 100 citizens, also had 500 firefighters stationed there. The locals asked firefighters not to shop in town; for fear that they would run out of supplies.
Espinoza laughed when recalling the road through town and the cars that traveled it. There were three automobiles. Two didn't run. When he asked a local where the road went, the response seemed vague at first. "It goes there," the villager said. There meaning exactly that, there. The whole road was about a block long and the cars were brought up over the river ice during winter.
When asked about a replacement, Espinoza suggested Damion Smith, but also noted that there are about five potential candidates who he thinks would do well. "If you're given responsibility, you'll handle it. But it's the lack of confidence in yourself (that is a reason) why some people can't step up and do that. But, if you're forced to, most people can handle that responsibility," he said.
In his opinion, four vehicles also need to be replaced. They are outdated. With new rules, they are less viable as options. In a volunteer department, replacing equipment is hard. Espinoza thinks that every fire chief in Carbon County should be put on payroll with at least with 25 hours or so. Since all fire departments in Carbon County are on volunteer status, no one gets paid. All of the firefighters have to come up with alternate ways to provide for themselves or their families and still be available when communities need them.
During his tenure as chief, Espinoza instituted his idea of splitting up responsibility among the crew members. If all the weight and responsibility is on the chief's shoulders, than who else would ever know how to run the department? Splitting up the work load not only makes it more even, but also allows more people to become familiar with various aspects of their jobs. In Espinoza's mind, this policy has contributed to over 38 years with no fatalities or serious injury for the Wellington force.