THE SOURING INFERNO

LAST MONTH, THE RURAL/METRO FIRE DEPARTMENT BATTLED THE 23,000-ACRE RIO BLAZE. BUT AFTER THE FIRE WAS OUT, THE COMPANY STILL HADN'T COOLED ITS CRITICS.

The IC wanted her to redirect her slurry tankers to a fancier neighborhood under construction on the west side of the mountain, even though the fire was not yet threatening that side, "to protect the scenic value of that mountain."

In other words, Goldhahn was asked to save lots instead of houses.
"And I had a problem with that," she says, "because I felt that scenic value was one thing and we had real estate down there that was being threatened."
And so she shot back, "What about the value of these houses down here that have actual people in them?"

Air attack diplomatically reminded her that the IC was the boss, but Goldhahn continued on her own course. Finally, after more reminders, she brought a slurry load through on the southwest side, dropped it high and watched it blow away ineffectively.

Rural/Metro's Lou Jekel was puzzled when questioned about the incident.
To his knowledge, Rural/Metro was no longer in charge of the air attack at that point.

"We have always had a policy to defend houses," he says.

Rural/Metro was founded in 1948, when a newspaper reporter named Lou Witzeman watched a Phoenix neighbor's house burn down because there was no fire department. He started his own. Four years later, in 1952, when the City of Scottsdale incorporated, Rural/Metro signed on to provide its fire protection. It has been there ever since, and has fielded fire departments and ambulance companies across the country with great fiscal success. In 1994, Rural/Metro posted gross revenues of $104 million, and has projected revenues near $170 million for 1995.

Rural/Metro claims to be the second largest national corporation headquartered in Scottsdale. The management of Scottsdale and of Rural/Metro are intertwined.

Rural/Metro vice president for fire operations Robert Edwards was formerly married to Scottsdale assistant city manager Barbara Burns. Wildland fire chief and major stockholder Lou Jekel is a prominent zoning attorney and longtime friend of Mayor Herb Drinkwater. Drinkwater is a reserve fire captain.

In other communities where it has fire contracts, Rural/Metro also keeps tight political bonds.

In 1992, Phoenix firefighter John Vardian was elected to the Fountain Hills fire board, which contracts with Rural/Metro for fire protection. Before he took office, the remaining commissioners tried to push through a ten-year contract with Rural/Metro because they assumed that Vardian would try to organize a unionized municipal fire department.

Vardian clashed with the board over disclosure of finances.
"Since we paid Rural/Metro in excess of a million dollars a year, I wanted to know where some of that money was going," Vardian says. "I couldn't get that information, and I was a board member."
He was forbidden access to the firefighters and was not allowed to deal directly with Rural/Metro, he claims. Finally, he resigned in frustration and moved out of Fountain Hills.

Fire boards in other communities found the same stone walls. Ben Owens, fire chief for the town of Laveen and a former battalion chief for Rural/Metro, claims that Rural/Metro was booted out of that community for refusing to reveal its profit margin on services rendered to the fire district boards.

Rural/Metro touts its Scottsdale program as the least expensive in the Valley, because of its system of staffing with a combination of full-time and part-time, or "reserve," firefighters. Rural/Metro also admits that it cuts back on the number of firefighters per truck, but, because of the great numbers of on-call and reserve firefighters on its rosters, both in Scottsdale and in the outlying towns where it has fire stations, it can page the manpower when it needs it.

Which sounds great in theory, but may work differently in practice.
"By the time I'd get there, the fire would be out and we just cleaned up," says Robin Driscoll, remembering his days as a Rural/Metro reserve firefighter. He now works for the Tempe Fire Department.

The reserve firefighter system also makes it difficult to compare Scottsdale's firefighting manpower costs with those of other municipalities.

Rural/Metro buries costs in a tricky financial fire-protection package, and it works like this: Scottsdale builds the fire stations and buys most of the large apparatus. Rural/Metro provides the bodies, the small equipment, makes its own vehicles--command pickups and brush trucks, for example--available within the city limits, and takes care of the administration of it all. This fiscal year, from an overall fire budget of $10 million, Scottsdale will pay Rural/Metro $9.4 million to provide the equivalent of 102 on-duty firefighters, including officers and fire prevention staff, spaced over eight fire stations. Rural/Metro resents such simplification, because it doesn't take into account the manpower resources it has in its reserves.

Rural/Metro does not provide a line-item explanation of where the money goes.
Tempe, by contrast, is one-fifth as large as Scottsdale, but it has 150 firefighters for which it pays $7.4 million out of an overall $10 million budget. Tempe also pays a higher starting salary than Rural/Metro, and its firefighters (like all municipal firefighters in the Valley), work 12 fewer hours per week to earn it.

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