On his second-to-last day on the job, now-retired Rio Rancho Fire Chief Paul Bearce sits on the bench he gave to Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue Department as a parting gift, outside the administrative headquarters on Stephanie Road. The emblems on the bench are reminders of the importance of mental health support. Argen Marie Duncan photo.

Rio Rancho’s fire chief retired to take care of himself, but he’s staying active in mental-health support, the work that is his proudest career achievement.

Paul Bearce, who served with Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue Department for 20 years after five years as a Sandoval County volunteer firefighter, finished his second career Tuesday. He had been a photojournalist for nearly two decades before becoming a firefighter, rising to the rank of photo editor at the Albuquerque Journal.

Deputy Fire Chief Jimmy DeFillippo is working as interim fire chief until Bearce’s permanent replacement is chosen. Marc Sandoval has become the new second deputy chief.

In his retirement, Bearce plans to spend time with his family; go camping and fly-fishing; and travel.

“My promise even in retirement is to stay connected in the behavioral health realm to support the brothers and sisters with whom I serve. I think it’s that important,” he said.

Bearce said the biggest factor that pulled him into retirement was the death of his parents, his father last November and his mother in July. His mother was a homemaker who raised five children, and his father was a computer engineer who earned an art degree after retiring at age 62, Bearce’s age now.

“They didn’t leave anything on the table,” Bearce said, recalling that his parents had enjoyed their retirement.

His job field is stressful, he said, whether as a responder or as a chief responsible for more than 100 responders. He preached self-care as the best way to take care of the community, and decided he needed to  practice what he’d been preaching.

“We have an expiration date, and nobody knows when that is,” Bearce said.

Bearce grew up in Utah. In high school, he met his wife, Laurinda, who’s from Albuquerque, and they married shortly before college graduation.

In 1983, the couple took their newborn first son to meet Laurinda’s mother and stepfather in Oklahoma. Looking for a job in journalism, Bearce stopped at the Constitution Press newspaper in Lawton, Okla., and was hired on the spot.

“I still have amazing friends I worked with way back then,” he said.

After Laurinda’s parents moved back to Albuquerque, she got a job in the Duke City and then Bearce joined the Journal.

In 1996, he was assigned to take photos of a new fire truck in Placitas. The fire chief invited him to volunteer as a firefighter.

“It seemed like an impassioned plea, and I took him up on it,” Bearce said. “And I fell in love with EMS and firefighting.”

In 2001, he decided to make that work his full-time career and joined Rio Rancho’s fire department.

When he entered the field, Bearce said, firefighters were taught the way to handle repeatedly seeing tragedies was to “suck it up.”

“A friend of mine told me when I was starting all this that if you push all that ugliness down, it’ll come out in very ugly ways,” he recalled.

As fire chief, Bearce helped make counselors trained in serving first responders available to Rio Rancho firefighters and start a peer support program. He also brought in the suicide-prevention Yellow Rose Campaign after a Rio Rancho firefighter took his own life.

“I wanted everyone to know the department was a safe haven,” Bearce said. “… We are all responsible for taking care of each other, and rank has no place.”

Any firefighter can go to another department member of any rank for help, and that person must not judge but help connect the struggling colleague with resources, he said.

Bearce said it’s been an honor to serve the community.

“And the impact that serving others has had on me can’t be measured,” he continued.

He found it satisfying to help people as a responder and then, as an administrator, to help responders helping the community.

“It’s been my pleasure to be there for them,” Bearce said. “And hopefully that’s been my legacy, is being there for the men and women who serve this community.”