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Santa Fe firefighters get training — and country club pool gets free fill-up

Daniel ChaconMay 23, 2019

Members of the Santa Fe Country Club soon will be swimming in a private pool filled at public expense.

The Santa Fe Fire Department spent several hours Saturday night and early Sunday morning filling the country club’s swimming pool for free.

But don’t call what happened in the wee hours of the weekend Poolgate.

According to city officials, it was part of an exercise to train firefighters to put out fires in areas with a limited water supply.

“I would just hate to see [Santa Fe firefighters] lambasted for training this hard well into the night on this kind of an exercise, and I would hate to see the public — what’s the word? — just made to feel suspicious about what they do,” city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said Wednesday. “The end result of this exercise was better training.”

And, Chacon conceded, a private pool was filled with thousands of gallons of water, courtesy of Santa Fe ratepayers.

“That was the end result,” she said.

It was good timing, too. Seasonal memberships to use the heated, outdoor swimming pool run from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Seasonal memberships cost $700.

“Seasonal membership requires full payment upon joining,” according to the country club’s website.

David Nowell, country club general manager, did not return a message seeking comment.

Chacon said the country club in southwest Santa Fe initiated contact with the fire department. As a result, fire Chief Paul Babcock scheduled what is known as a “drafting” practice.

“When no hydrants are available, as is the case in many annexed areas, the Fire Department makes use of tanks that carry [2,000 to 3,000 gallons] of water, and this drafting exercise was an opportunity to train firefighters in how to fill the tanks and work on a long-distance response,” Chacon wrote in an email. “It also gives the men and women of the department practice operating in low-pressure situations.”

Chacon said the crew consisted of on-duty firefighters who laid 1,400 feet of 5-inch hose. The after-hours training session lasted well past midnight, she said.

“The trucks used hydrant water to fill their tanks, then ran it through several lengths of hose and into a holding tank, circling from tank to pool and back, and finishing with a full pool,” she wrote. “The exercise would otherwise have drained water into a sewer or stream. In this case, it was used as a fast fill for the pool and a training exercise for the firefighters.”

Chief Babcock did not return a message seeking comment but said in a statement, “These drafting exercises have been conducted several times with other swimming pools, including the Genoveva Chavez Community Center and the Bicentennial Pool.”

It’s unclear why the fire department didn’t conduct the exercise again at Bicentennial Pool, a city-owned outdoor swimming pool scheduled to open Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day.

A local firefighter who requested anonymity said the training is vital but the optics are bad.

“The training is necessary for us to do our jobs and protect the public, but how much free water did the country club get?” he asked. “It is such a precious and scarce resource here, and I’d get it if they’re filling a city pool, but to do it with a private entity?”

Chacon, who didn’t know the amount or value of the water used in the training exercise, said she understood how the public could perceive the situation.

“I know that you are trying to find a nefarious plot that cheats taxpayers … but that’s not it. It really isn’t it,” she said.

“You’re going to write what you’re going to write, but these people work hard and train hard, and this is how they do it,” Chacon added. “It ain’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. I hope it’s not the last. I hope they’re not dissuaded from doing this kind of training because of scrutiny and criticism. This is how they do it.”

Chacon confirmed the city didn’t charge the country club for any water.

“And the club,” she wrote, “did not charge for use of its facilities for training.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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