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.

Mesa is two-thirds as large as Scottsdale, but it has three times as many full-time firefighter positions in twice as many firehouses. Its budget, meanwhile, is only twice as large as Scottsdale's, most of which goes to salaries, for three times as many manned positions per week.

And even if Scottsdale residents are already paying as much or more money for less fire coverage than other Valley cities, they also pay higher fire insurance rates. The Insurance Service Organization, or ISO, ranks communities for fire risk, based on fire departments, water supplies and other firefighting variables. The system uses a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best and 10 the worst.

Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa have ratings of 2; Peoria and Glendale are rated as 3s; Scottsdale is a 4. And though Mayor Herb Drinkwater assured New Times that, as of September, Scottsdale would be a 2, Randy Surber, the ISO regional manager in Los Angeles, said he knew nothing to that effect.

Rural/Metro hates the firefighter unions almost as much as the unions hate Rural/Metro. So any questions regarding Rural/Metro's costs and operations are usually countered with antiunion statements.

"I hear that the unions are talking to you," Drinkwater told New Times, "that's what I can figure out."
In a letter to the Lake Havasu newspaper, Rural/Metro vice president Bob Edwards wrote, "The majority of our critics are motivated by a union agenda which has more to do with power than public interest. It is quite apparent that the firefighter's union has waged a 'misinformation campaign' against Rural/Metro intended to cloud the truth and maintain the status quo."

Rural/Metro lost the bid to provide services for Lake Havasu. Edwards claims that the unions appear anywhere the company makes its pitch and trot out the same war-horse stories, sometimes leaving out important information. The unions tell about the much-publicized 1990 incident in which Rural/Metro failed to respond to a fire at a fast-food restaurant because it was in Phoenix--even though it was directly across the street from a Rural/Metro station.

Rural/Metro has since proved in litigation that it did respond and was told to back off by Phoenix firefighters who arrived on the scene moments later.

The unions bring up Scottsdale's inability or unwillingness to participate in automatic aid agreements with the Phoenix Fire Department, as do the rest of the Valley's major fire departments. All 911 calls in those communities funnel into a computer-aided dispatch (or CAD) system that uses satellites to pinpoint the fire's location and determine the closest fire station to it within ten feet, regardless of what town the station is in. In other words, if you live in Glendale, but a Phoenix firehouse is closer to your home than the nearest Glendale firehouse, the computer will dispatch the Phoenix station.

Scottsdale does not participate in automatic aid.
"We have not been invited to participate," says Marc Eisen, Director of Emergency Services for Scottsdale. The city does have "mutual aid" agreements with its neighbors that require that the fire departments communicate by telephone and hash things out.

The unions also bring up the number of firefighters on each truck. Most departments put four men on a fire engine with the rationale that one man has to stay with the engine's water pump, and one has to direct the operation, leaving two men to fight the fire.

Although Rural/Metro does in fact run some four-man trucks, the unions call attention to Rural/Metro's policy of frequently putting two or even one man on a truck. With one manning the pump, the other has to fight the fire alone.

"It was really scary," says one former Rural/Metro employee. "Sometimes they would send one guy with a truck. That's violating everything you've ever learned."
Other departments joke about it:
"Rural/Metro is the only company that can show up with one-man teams," as a Tempe firefighter quipped.

Rural/Metro contracts for fire protection and ambulance service in Scottsdale, Rio Verde and Fountain Hills, but in other towns, such as Paradise Valley, Cave Creek and Carefree, they instead sell "subscriptions," which, in essence, are insurance policies that businesses and homeowners pay to defray the expense of actually having to call 911 in an emergency.

"They go where the wallet is," says a current Rural/Metro firefighter who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.

Nonsubscribers pay dearly. New Times obtained a 1992 Rural/Metro invoice received by a Cave Creek resident that demanded $836 for "attempted snake removal."

Last January, a Peoria couple sued to keep from paying a $5,000 bill sent to them for a 1994 fire. When the fire broke out, the homeowners maintained, the Peoria fire department arrived first, and Rural/Metro arrived after the fire had mostly been extinguished. Rural/Metro sent the bill for $5,000, anyway.

Similarly, Rural/Metro is now suing Fireworks Productions International, the Tempe fireworks plant that blew up in June of 1994.

The factory sits on an unincorporated part of the county adjacent to Tempe within a Rural/Metro subscription area. Because the 911 call came from a Tempe phone number, Tempe fire trucks were dispatched to the scene, though it was out of the city's jurisdiction. Nevertheless, according to Tempe Fire Department personnel, they fought the fire and airlifted a man injured in the explosion.

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