By Richard Urban / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
Less than an hour after the Pinal County Board of Supervisors signed off on an agreement Wednesday that authorizes the Sheriff’s Office to notify the South Florence Volunteer Fire Department when a 9-1-1 call comes in, the department got its first alert, a trailer fire about three miles south of Florence.
A half dozen volunteers responded, and the fire was extinguished before it could spread to surrounding structures.
Earlier that day, after the board unanimously authorized the agreement, volunteer chief Larry Vincent and Sheriff Lamb talked outside the board room. Lamb told Vincent that while there were still a few details to be worked out, he wanted to reinstate the department immediately.
“I urged the sheriff to exercise his judgment and immediately instruct dispatch to accept these calls, and apparently he did,” said Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh whose district encompasses the volunteer department’s service area.
A system test soon after the vote ensured the system worked, Vincent said. Minutes later another call came in.
“It was at 1:22. I said, well, they must be running another test. This was not a test. This was for real,” Vincent said.
Getting to an agreement was “an ugly, messy process,” County Attorney Kent Volkmer told supervisors Wednesday.
It required navigating a state bureaucracy that Volkmer discovered did not provide much regulation of firefighters and volunteer departments.
“I was shocked when we really got down to it and looked at what the standards were because firefighters in Arizona are not held to a particularly high standard. And I don't mean that in a horrible way,” Volkmer said in an interview. “Frankly, you’ve got to have more professional qualifications to be a barber. And there's more oversight, which is preposterous to me.”
The process was compounded by misunderstandings and miscommunication. In the end, the county wanted to ensure that when a 9-1-1 call goes out to the volunteer department that it is not putting the caller in greater jeopardy. But it asked the volunteers to meet standards that would be nearly impossible for any fire department to meet. The volunteers simply wanted to be able to help their neighbors.
“I think our expectation was a little different than reality,” Volkmer said of the county’s demands.
After the April 19 fire that destroyed the Hohokam Road home belonging to Marilesa Money and Frank Hetzel, the board asked Volkmer and Sheriff Mark Lamb to find a solution quickly. A series of meetings led to the memorandum of understanding that the board approved Wednesday.
The solution portends a shift in the way the growing county conducts business. When it was a sparsely populated rural community, a handshake agreement often was all that was needed. And that is what the volunteer department had when it initially was included in the 9-1-1 system last year. But stricter protocols are now needed to ensure those who keep the public safe can do the job and are held accountable, Volkmer said.
“We've got these kind of rural areas where people want to be away from everybody. They want to be left alone. But they also want some of the modern amenities that we've grown to expect, including fire service, including emergency service,” he said.
The county does not provide fire protection, and until now, the Sheriff’s Office did not engage with fire departments anywhere in the county.
“That is not something that the county would normally do as far as engaging or starting a fire service,” Supervisor Cavanaugh said. “It's very costly. So, what happens is you either have volunteer fire departments, subscription for-profit fire services, or you have a fire district. It would be wise to have fire districts.”
Voters must approve creating fire districts, which provide for special taxes to fund them.
Vincent is just happy he can go back to helping his neighbors.
“You need to have that healthy interaction between the people and the politicians,” he said. “I think it shows that government, at least in small towns, still works and that people have some influence on how politicians prioritize issues.”