Deadly Politics

The call came into the Phoenix alarm room at 6:38 p.m. last Monday. Within seconds, Phoenix notified Rural/Metro Fire Department to respond immediately.

A mother had just found her 2-year-old girl floating face down in a pool in the 16600 block of West Hilton Avenue in the far West Valley. The mother had pulled the girl from the water and performed CPR. The child was breathing at the time of the call, but it was unknown how long the child had been in the water.

By paramedics standards, this was considered an extremely serious call.

The call went to Rural/Metro because the private fire and ambulance company serves county land. But Rural/Metro's nearest station was more than 10 minutes from the home, which sits in a once-isolated 25-year-old eclectic development of 30 ranchettes on county land surrounded by the now booming suburbia of Goodyear.

Following longtime standard policy, Rural/Metro dispatchers called the Goodyear Fire Department for help -- a "mutual aid" call in firefighter vernacular. A Goodyear unit was less than three minutes from the child.

But for the first time anyone at Rural/Metro can remember, the fire department of Goodyear refused to respond to the call.

"Surprised is an understatement," Rural/Metro spokeswoman Ruthanne Gilbert tells New Times. "Literally, this is the first time we've ever been turned down. It just floored our people."

"No doubt, it's highly unusual for a call like that to be denied," says Bob Khan, a Phoenix assistant fire chief. "All you want to see is someone get there as quickly as possible."

Rural/Metro paramedics arrived 10 minutes and two seconds after they received the call. Goodyear would have been there seven minutes earlier.

The child was airlifted by helicopter to St. Joseph's Hospital. The toddler is doing well, according to her mother, Tricia Garnes.

Lucky for Goodyear that Garnes knew CPR. Otherwise, these petty politics might have killed a baby girl.

And that's exactly what's at the heart of this bizarre incident. Politics. And at the heart of the political fight, of course, is money and onionlike layers of perceived wrongs by the players involved.

In the end, the only clear blame is on those who would endanger a child as part of a political feud.

That would be the city officials of Goodyear, which suspended its mutual aid agreement with Rural/Metro last year. That would be the chiefs of the Goodyear Fire Department, who, regardless of what their city council says, have a sacred duty, like doctors with their Hippocratic oath, to act immediately to preserve human life.

Shame on the leaders of Goodyear.

But that said, like West Bank suicide bombers, you can empathize with the deep frustration that led to the shameful incident.

At issue: All of Maricopa County's municipal fire departments are part of what are called "automatic aid jurisdictions." Phoenix is locked in with 18 neighboring cities. Several neighboring East Valley cities have their own agreements.

In those agreements, there are no questions asked when a call comes. The closest unit goes.

But Rural/Metro, which also serves Scottsdale, is not part of these automatic jurisdictions. Instead, it must call and ask for help from the closest municipality.

Ask fire chiefs around the Valley and you'll get the same sentiment: Rural/Metro's help is a one-way street. Cities generally feel Rural/Metro leans on neighboring municipalities and their taxpayers to provide adequate coverage of Scottsdale and county islands, a charge that Rural/Metro officials, of course, deny.

"We are always there to help," Gilbert says.

To become part of one of the Valley's automatic aid jurisdictions, Rural/Metro must improve its "training, staffing and technology" to allow it to fit seamlessly with the Valley's professional municipal forces, Khan says.

"I imagine it's an expensive proposition for a for-profit company," he says.

Without those added costs, Rural/Metro can provide fire and emergency services for less money than municipalities. This is the core reason Scottsdale residents recently voted to retain Rural/Metro to provide the city's fire service rather than create a city fire department.

Indeed, in letters to Valley newspapers, several Scottsdale residents expressed a sentiment that infuriates neighbors:

Why should we pay more for a city fire department when we have a mutual aid agreement anyway? We'll pay less and get any help we need from Phoenix or Tempe whenever we ask.

Some residents of county islands are bold and stupid enough to state as much themselves.

My first reaction to Scottsdale and county residents is the same reaction as the leaders of Goodyear:

Screw you guys. We're not helping you out anymore. You'll get exactly what you have voted to pay for. You want lower taxes? Fine. Just realize you're also purchasing yourself slower response times in an emergency.

Bravo for Goodyear for finally taking a stand against profiteers and freeloaders.

"This is being characterized as though it's Goodyear that has the problem," says Mark Gaillard, Goodyear's fire chief. "That's totally unfair. The people of Goodyear have made a commitment to making this a modern, well-trained, well-equipped fire department that serves their community, and the city council made it very clear by suspending the mutual aid agreement that we are supposed to serve the people of Goodyear. I know this is a very problematic issue, but the solutions need to come from elsewhere."

That means county islands need to annex, and pay city taxes, if they want city-quality fire services.

Of course, there's one problem in this case. The city's stand, when applied, is still morally reprehensible.

Unlike the Marines, they can't "kill them all and let God sort them out." Firefighters and paramedics must help them all and let the city billing department sort them out.

Indeed, that's what Phoenix and Tempe probably will be doing with Scottsdale. Now that Scottsdale residents voted that they want the financial benefits of being an island with a comparatively understaffed for-profit fire department, nearby cities are now looking at better making sure they're compensated when they must bail out Scottsdale in an emergency it can't handle alone. More power to them.

Perhaps once Rural/Metro is faced with the true cost of doing business, it would be more willing to spend the money necessary to allow it to fit into one of the Valley's automatic aid compacts.

Only then will every citizen in Maricopa County be assured of the fastest help possible in a life-threatening emergency.

As for Goodyear officials, they must immediately give up any notion of sending a message to Rural/Metro, or county residents who ignore their overtures for annexation, by withholding their services.

That means the Goodyear city council needs to restore some form of its mutual aid agreement with Rural/Metro even if it means they're getting ripped off.

Because the next time there's an emergency call, their rightful indignation may just get a child killed.

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Robert Nelson