Rural/Metro Corp. has appointed a president to oversee its fire operations and plans to model itself after Valley fire departments by adding more crews and joining a regionwide emergency response system.
Barry Landon, longtime president of Southwest Ambulance — a subsidiary of Rural/Metro — will take on a dual role as the top executive of Rural/Metro fire services in Arizona.
The changes were announced in a company memo distributed Tuesday to employees.
The Rural/Metro firefighting model — with three firefighters on a truck and its own emergency dispatch system — has been heavily criticized by those who argue municipal departments are safer and have better response times. The move comes several months after Rural/Metro announced it will pull fire service out of Scottsdale, and has tried to hush speculation that the company would also abandon more rapidly growing rural areas, such as Queen Creek and parts of Pinal County.
"This is a long-term commitment to the residents" the company serves, Landon said. "Our intent is to take this base of business and to elevate it to a level equal to all the other fire departments."
Most municipal departments adhere to a national recommendation of four firefighters per truck. Rural/ Metro will gradually move to a four-person crew over five years, the first of which will be staffed on July 1.
The company also plans to link up to what’s known as the Valleywide "automatic aid system," a satellite-assisted dispatch system that sends the closest fire truck to an emergency, regardless of geographic boundaries.
As part of the changes, the company laid off "fewer than 10" senior-level employees, most of whom work in Pima County, said Joshua Weiss, a spokesman for Southwest Ambulance.
Steve Springborn, president of United Firefighters of Maricopa County union, said the company’s changes would be safer for the public and firefighters.
"I hope everything they are saying comes true because what they are talking about is building a better fire department — meeting minimum standards, instead of below-minimum standards," said Springborn, a Rural/ Metro firefighter who spearheaded an effort to oust the company from Scottsdale.
Rural/Metro announced in November that it is ending its 52-year fire-protection agreement with Scottsdale by July 2005. The announcement came only six months after voters chose to keep the contract with the private company.
That announcement — coupled with the company’s later decision to discontinue fire service in several Maricopa County islands — caused other communities to question whether Rural/ Metro would also leave them.
In response, the company recently reassured Queen Creek it would enhance its services. It also has invested $1.2 million in a fire station in the rapidly growing Johnson Ranch area of Pinal County. The commitments come as there is a grass-roots effort to replace Rural/Metro in northern Pinal County.