By Richard Urban / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
The president and chief of the South Florence Volunteer Fire Department is frustrated and fuming that he did not find out about an early Tuesday morning fire that destroyed a house just three miles away from him until hours after the fire broke out.
“The powers that be at the Pinal County Sheriff's Department determined that we are not a fire department that they use or call. This just changed, and these people's house burned to the ground,” Volunteer chief Larry Vincent said.
County Attorney Kent Volkmer acknowledged that until a few weeks ago, 9-1-1 dispatchers could call the department, but that ended after he and the sheriff’s office raised concerns about liability should something go wrong.
“We indicated to the PCSO, our clients, after they asked our opinion, whether they should continue to dispatch, and we said until they become certified, they should not. So, in this case, they did not dispatch the volunteer fire department to the fire this morning,” Volkmer said.
“It is an absolute travesty that we have a family that lost their home. It is horrible. Obviously, that's not what we want to see happen,” Volkmer said.
According to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lauren Reimer, a call came in at about 12:15 a.m. Tuesday that a house on the 10000 Block of North Hohokam Road was on fire.
The responding deputies got the homeowners and their pets out and removed livestock from the property before the house was fully engulfed. The fire eventually burned itself out.
“Surrounding fire departments were called, but all declined to respond,” Reimer said. The South Florence Volunteer Fire Department was not called in because the “PCSO cannot call private citizens or companies to put out fires as it could expose our agency to significant liability risks,” she said. “The area in which this occurred has no fire coverage.”
Vincent disputes that. He said the volunteer department that was organized nearly two years ago has the equipment, volunteers and training to fight fires in the unincorporated, rural area southeast of Florence. But they cannot fight fires they do not know about, he said.
Volkmer said nothing prohibits people in that part of the county from calling the department and having the volunteers respond.
“All we're saying is until you meet our minimum threshold, we can't essentially give you the blessing of the county. That comes with too much weight,” Volkmer said.
“Remember, the county, in the eyes of many, has essentially unlimited resources. So, you can sue us, and we will be required to pay considerable amounts of money. Our job is to protect the community, to protect the county from unwanted liability. Us dispatching uncertified and unlicensed firefighters is taking on a huge risk for the county,” he said.
Vincent said he was surprised to learn that the county wants his department to be certified, despite what Volkmer said about working with him on that. “This is the first we've heard of it,” he said.
Volkmer said the county told the department in February that it needed to get state fire marshal certification so it could be part of the emergency dispatch system.
“So, we've been encouraging them. The county gave them money and resources that help nudge them in that direction. This fire just happened between the time when they're actually certified and when they're in the process. And that's a terrible travesty. Just thank god, nobody lost their lives.”
What troubles Vincent the most is that sheriff’s deputies on the scene could not call the volunteers who had a truck ready to go just three miles away. “We're an organized, legitimate unit that's insured. We train weekly. I don't know what more we can do to provide protection,” Vincent said.
“We're asking them to be good community citizens and make a phone call and inform the community, the Cactus Forest community, that there's a fire in our area. We're not asking them to dispatch us,” he said. “We're asking for community information, to be informed of a fire, period.”
Volkmer said that because the county does not provide fire services, some rural communities in unincorporated areas of the county contract with private companies, citing San Tan Valley as an example. However, homeowners not under contract with the provider will not get an answer to a call for help when fire breaks out.
However, Volkmer said that a fire district could be a solution.
“That would be the county's preference is to have an actual fire district as codified in our Arizona Revised Statutes. There's a very specific process. That's what we really want from this group.”
Vincent is skeptical.
“You know what you get with the fire district? Absolutely nothing. They don't do anything to help us form a district,” he said. “They want me to do all the work. The county should be doing this. I'm more than willing to help in any way I can, but I'm tired of being a lone horse in this race.”
In the meantime, Volkmer said, the chairman of the board of supervisors is setting up a meeting for early May that will include the volunteer department, county officials, and the state fire marshal’s office to begin looking for solutions.
“It's a shame that it's somebody loses their house to bring to this point, but part of our genuine and sincere hope is that yes, they will be licensed, they will get their certification, the state fire marshal will stamp it to go, we can then put them on our dispatch list, and then the county can continue to provide assistance to make sure that they can serve our community members,” Volkmer said.