By Richard Urban / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
People living in the rural communities southeast of Florence are caught in the middle of efforts to reinstate the South Florence Volunteer Fire Department into the county’s 9-1-1 emergency response system so it can respond to fires in the 375 square miles of sparsely populated territory it covers.
County Attorney Kent Volkmer maintains that the department that formed 18 months ago has not shown that its firefighters are properly certified to fight fires, raising questions about whether the county would be liable for damages should a 9-1-1 call go out to the department.
He advised the Sheriff’s office to remove the department from the 9-1-1 system until the state Fire Marshal certifies the department’s credentials and satisfies his misgivings about potential risks should something go wrong.
“All we're saying is until you meet our minimum threshold, we can't essentially give you the blessing of the county,” Volkmer said. “That comes with too much weight. And we have to take that seriously because of liability.”
The department’s founder and chief, Larry Vincent, argues that the department is well-equipped and trained to handle most fires, that until recently it was a part of the emergency response system that worked without incident, and that it was not informed that the department had been removed from the system.
When a house fire broke out on April 19, just weeks after the department was removed, Vincent said, “That was the first time we had confirmation that that that the system was broken.
Neighbors called 9-1-1 that day, and sheriff’s deputies were dispatched. But the fire department, which had equipment positioned three miles away, was not.
“We’ve got 14 volunteers. We've got a dozen or so fire departments that have helped us with gear and training. We've got five trucks. We got 5,000 gallons of water on wheels. We have guys that have been to fire school. We got eight more guys that are going this year. I mean, we've got a full-fledge attempt to get all this going,” Vincent said.
The fire burned for hours as the homeowners, Marilesa Money and Frank Hetzel, and their neighbors watched helplessly. Deputies, neighbors said, barred them from trying to help.
Everything that the couple owned was gone, and their lives now depend on the community’s kindness, which has been generous in providing necessities and caring for their animals. A GoFundMe account created on their behalf had raised $2,245 in the week since the fire.
“It is a genuine travesty that that family's house burned down, that those animals passed away. There is not one person that wanted to see that happen,” Volkmer said. “But we can't send people to your property that aren't certified that don't meet a minimal level of professionalism.”
Volkmer and Vincent say they are looking out for the best interests of Pinal County residents and want to find workable solutions to providing fire protection for a part of the county that had been without it until 18 months ago.
But residents are worried about what happens in the interim as fire season peaks.
How We Got Here
Volkmer’s office started questioning the department’s professionalism in early February after a sheriff’s deputy, citing two trespassing complaints, asked for an opinion on whether someone could refuse to let volunteers onto their property.
The deputy, whose name was withheld, asked if there was a state law that protects people from trespassers who “self-identify as a firefighter.”
“Our response was, let us look into this group. We don’t even know who they are,” Volkmer said.
Pinal County Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh, whose District 1 encompasses the area, said the county attorney’s office should have known about the department. It signed off on a grant the county awarded to it last summer.
“We distributed around $10,000 to the fire department so they can buy hoses that are in good shape. That has to be signed off by the county attorney's office. I just can't say give this guy money,” Cavanaugh said. “And then suddenly, we discovered that they were making a claim … that this is not a bona fide fire department. It just doesn't pass the sniff test.”
Vincent said he was unaware of the complaints.
Once Volkmer started looking into the department, he said all he found was a letter of concurrence between the department and the Pinal County 9-1-1 Consortium to respond to 9-1-1 calls.
“We looked at various certifications and said we don't have any information on file, nothing. We don't have insurance on file. We don't have any certifications on file.” Volkmer said. “So, we reached out and told them if you don't get it to us, we're gonna terminate you from our contract” putting the department in the 9-1-1 system.
By the time the department responded with a copy of their insurance policies and a summation of their training and certification, Volmer said, he had already advised the sheriff to remove the department from the 9-1-1 system.
Volkmer said the Sheriff’s Office sent a letter in March to terminate the agreement, but Vincent said he never saw it. Cavanaugh also asked for a copy of the letter but said he has not seen it, either.
“The issue here is the 9-1-1 service ended without notification,” Cavanaugh said. “And that is of great concern to me.”
Vincent said he and Volkmer talked Friday and that Volkmer acknowledged that there was a clerical error and the letter did not go out.
It was only weeks after the department was removed from the 9-1-1 system that the fire destroyed the house on Hohokam Road, leaving its owners homeless. Since then, county representatives and the fire department have been trying to find a solution.
Searching for Solutions
“I'm working with Larry, and Larry is reaching out to folks to figure out how best to solve the problem,” Cavanaugh said during his weekly constituent call-in on Monday. More than 80 people were on the call, which normally attracts about 10 people.
Many offered solutions such as getting the sheriff’s office to allow neighbors to help out as they always had done before Vincent organized the department. Deputies at the April 19 fire prevented neighbors from going on the property.
Another proposed contracting with a private, for-profit fire service that charges a fee to provide protection. But in an area as spread out as this part of the county, it is questionable whether a private service would want to invest the money it would take.
A proposal to establish a dedicated phone number to contact the fire department while simultaneously alerting all 14 volunteers was also considered. The logistics and expense might be prohibitive, and it would be difficult to retrain people after more than 50 years of being encouraged to call 9-1-1.
“The harm that people could suffer if they are expecting fire service when they call 9-1-1 and don't get it, they need to know clearly who to call, how to get a hold of a fire department,” Cavanaugh said.
Vincent offered his personal phone number as an option. “I just I sleep on the couch now, petrified this is going to happen again until we get it fixed,” he said.
“That is not a good solution,” Cavanaugh said, “because you cannot put this burden on one human being. It is unfair. We have a 9-1-1 system that can be used. The question is why isn't it being used?”
Vincent said that when he met with Volkmer on Friday, re-establishing a 9-1-1 link quickly was the greatest concern.
"We stressed we need that standard 9-1-1 phone call notification to improve our response times as that significantly aids in reducing property loss and extension of fire losses to adjoining neighbors," Vincent said.
“At this point, we are solely focused on finding solutions that are to the benefit of everyone involved,” said Michael Pelton, the county attorney’s public information officer.
“Dialog is ensuing as we speak,” Vincent said. “That’s progress in my eyes.”