Rural Metro contract

Local fire officials say Carefree’s contract with Rural Metro is keeping the town from being accepted into the automatic aid system.

After watching developments in Cave Creek’s fire protection services, Carefree Town Administrator Gary Neiss recently contacted the Arizona Life Safety Council, which determines who is eligible to join automatic aid. He asked for a similar opportunity to Cave Creek, where Rural Metro firefighters could go through an abbreviated training to meet requirements to join the automatic aid system.

Neiss said he sent the letter in October but has still not received a response. However, Phoenix Executive assistant chief and leader in the Life Safety Council, Scott Walker, told the Foothills Focus that as long as Carefree has a contract with Rural Metro, the town will not be accepted into the automatic aid system.

Being part of automatic aid means the closest unit responds to calls, regardless of regional boundaries, resulting in shorter response times. The benefits of joining the system are clear, but Walker said there have to be requirements in order to make things run smoothly – requirements that Rural Metro cannot meet.

“The automatic aid system is 22 fire departments working together to provide service to the region and do it more efficiently than any one could do one their own,” said Phoenix Executive Assistant Chief and leader in the Life Safety Council, Scott Walker. “It works very well because it’s seamless as units cross jurisdictional boundaries.”

Brian Tobin, the Daisy Mountain fire chief, said he has been involved with Carefree’s citizen advisory committee. Tobin said he and Scottsdale Fire Chief Tom Shannon presented the details and benefits of the automatic aid system to the advisory committee in June this year. In July, Tobin said both he and Shannon provided Neiss with a breakdown of what the cost would be to contract with Daisy Mountain or Scottsdale for fire services – similar to what Cave Creek did with Daisy Mountain.

Neiss, however, said Carefree does not have the same budget that Cave Creek does, and said making modifications to the town’s current agreement with Rural Metro would be the most cost-effective way to provide services. 

“Carefree is only eight and a half square miles,” Neiss said. “We’re not as big financially, geographically or population-wise as the town of Cave Creek. We’re a lot smaller. So, we have limited revenue streams and have to be creative with these applications and how we do things, and that’s why I ask these questions.”

Walker said it’s a fair question to ask, but the answer is more complicated than it seems. The most glaring issue is the National Fire Protection Association standard of four firefighters per truck, as the Rural Metro station in Carefree does not currently have the staff for. Tobin said this standard is followed by every community in the Valley except for those covered by Rural Metro. He also pointed out that only staffing three people per truck is part of the reason Rural Metro services are cheaper than an agreement with Scottsdale or Daisy Mountain.

However, even if it had the staff, there are other complications with Rural Metro joining the automatic aid system, the most problematic being training.

“They are a private company that provides their own training to their firefighters,” Tobin said. “It’s not the same training that the automatic aid system firefighters train in. Everybody outside of Rural Metro train in the exact same manner in the exact same places with the same equipment and standards.”

This may not seem like such an issue, as they are still certified fire fighters, but Walker said having the same training across the board is vital to handling large-scale incidents. He said it’s not that the Rural Metro training is good or bad, just that it is different. With the automatic aid system, it is not uncommon for units from multiple different jurisdictions to respond to a major incident. In those cases, having the exact same training ensures efficiency – no one has to stop and see what the others are doing, there is an immediate and unspoken understanding of what needs to happen. 

“Those firefighters would be responding in other jurisdictions like Scottsdale or Phoenix,” Walker explained. “We need to make sure that those firefighters are trained the same so that when you’re on an incident, a life or death incident like a structural fire or mountain rescue, everybody knows what everybody else is doing. That’s why we require that all jurisdictions attend one of the recognized fire academies so that we know the level of training they’re receiving and that all members are trained consistently.”

After not receiving a response from the Life Safety Council, Neiss questioned why Carefree would be excluded when the town could easily provide aid to areas like north Scottsdale. He said including Carefree would benefit the system and neighboring communities. However, Walker said that’s not entirely true. He said while no one wants to be unneighborly or exclusive, there are requirements are in place because the system only works if everyone can contribute.

“All jurisdictions have to have some fundamentals to show that they can meet the National Fire Protection Association standards to serve their community,” Walker said. “Otherwise, you would have an imbalance of resource allocation and use, and the system, while not equal in resource responses, is about equity and designed so that no one jurisdiction is unfairly taking advantage of the other one.”

Walker and Tobin both said the issue is not that they don’t want to work with Carefree, it’s that Rural Metro does not fit into the system. It lacks some of the most basic, fundamental requirements and, unless changed, Rural Metro will continue to be denied.

Neiss said right now the town is just trying to find information and learn about the system so that it can figure out how to move forward. He said public safety is the priority, but the town has to find the most economical way to provide that.