Longform

THE SOURING INFERNO

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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.

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.

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Michael Kiefer