Rick Varela admits it. He’s an adrenaline junkie. However, that’s not the real reason he joined the Clifton Fire Department 15 years ago.
“I was born and raised here and I love the community. My heart and soul are here and I want to do everything I can to help,” Varela said.
His stepfather was a volunteer Clifton firefighter until just a few years ago and he’s known since he was a child he wanted to join the fire service, Varela said.
“In times of need people call the police and firefighters and I just get a lot of joy out of helping people,” he said.
Varela was recently selected as Clifton’s newest fire chief. Chief Peter Ortega decided to retire from the position, although he remains with the all-volunteer department.
Varela, a married father of four, said his fellow firefighters and Clifton citizens probably won’t see a lot of changes now that he’s at the helm. He grew up in the department under Ortega and they always seemed to be on the same page, he said.
Varela spent the last two years as Ortega’s assistant chief. Before that, he spent several years as captain, responsible for training all of his colleagues.
Varela, who works in Freeport-McMoRan’s energy department, thinks his experience led to his selection as chief. He was interviewed for the position by Town Manager Rudy Perez, Police Chief Omar Negrete and Library Director Sabrina Dumas.
“I’ve got a lot of knowledge,” Varela said. “I’ve always been one to try to learn as much as I can. Whenver I had an opportunity to take classes, even if they were out of town, I would.”
The department’s 20 firefighters probably spend 50% of their time responding to accident scenes, Varela said. When one considers they go on 100-200 calls a year, that’s a lot of trauma.
As chief, he’ll continue to look after the mental well-being of his fellow firefighters, Varela said. Many people in their line of work suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and too many of them commit suicide, he said.
Being volunteers they often don’t have time to process their grief and sadness because their full-time jobs require them to return immediately after they’re done with a call, even in the most horrific of circumstances, he said.
Whenever possible, Varela said he likes to gather them together after calls to talk; information on counseling is also made available to them.
“Sometimes we’ll wake up from really bad dreams and I tell them they can call me anytime of the day or night,” Varela said.
It’s not just their mental well-being he’s concerned about.
Varela said he also worries about the carcinogens they come into contact with. He hopes to work with Perez to obtain grant funding that would allow firefighters to purchase a second set of turnout gear so they can immediately shed themselves of their soot-filled uniforms after fires. He’d also love to be able to purchase washers and dryers capable of handling their gear.
Firefighters used to never wash their gear because they were proud of the fires they fought, but nowadays firefighters are told to change their clothes right away and “go straight home and go straight to the shower. Don’t hug your children. Don’t hug your wife,” Varela said.
Varela said he learned a great deal from Ortega and is glad Ortega will still be around.
“It feels weird when he calls me chief,” Varela said with a laugh. “He’s been my chief for my whole career and he’s always going to be my chief. I’m just going to try to continue to build upon what he built.”