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THE SOURING INFERNO

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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.

Rural/Metro showed up later, but still sent the fireworks company a bill for $38,000, and sued when it refused to pay.

John Dooley, a former Rural/Metro firefighter who was stationed in Fountain Hills until 1993, claims that Rural/Metro's profit motive was so strong that when he went out in a one-man fire truck to brush fires on the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation, he would be told to let the fire burn until the wildland crew got there. Then Rural/Metro could send an additional bill to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

It could take an hour to assemble the wildland crew, and in at least one instance that the firefighter recalls, the blaze got out of hand.

"There was a fire on the reservation, and I was the first on the scene," Dooley says. "I felt I could have put it out, I felt I could have knocked down the fire before it got to the heavy fuel, and I was told to back down. And I did. They bring out the crew--I mean, what do they have to lose if they let the desert burn on the reservation? As long as no houses burn, it's not bad publicity for Rural/Metro.

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Michael Kiefer