Rural/Metro fire captain Mark Debruyckere was named National Firefighter of the Year in 2001. Last year, he had to sprint up and down the stairs of an obstacle course, weighted down by a fire hose, just to keep a job he has held for more than two decades.
To get a spot with the Scottsdale Fire Department, everyone had to try out.
"I don’t care if it’s the captain or the engineer or a firefighter," Scottsdale Fire Chief William McDonald said.
Rural/Metro Fire Department, Scottsdale’s homegrown emergency-services company, is ending its contract with the city after more than 50 years of service. On Friday, the new city fire department will take over. It’s an operation that was built almost from scratch over the last 12 months.
"I’ve been with Rural/Metro almost 22 years," Debruyckere said Thursday, smiling. "I won’t make it to 22."
About 200 of Scottsdale’s 258 fire positions were filled by Rural/Metro employees. The new city department is largely what firefighters wanted. But many soon-to-be Scottsdale fire employees said they are undergoing the biggest change of their careers.
They will be on probation during their first year, as all new city employees are. In addition, the city is not recognizing the union they have relied on as a strong voice for their interests.
"There is a lot of excitement, a little bit of nervousness, which is just natural," Debruyckere said.
In 2003, the firefighters launched a voter initiative, funded by their unions, to
Scottsdale voters overwhelmingly rejected it, and then, six months later, the company announced it was leaving on its own. The decision was made, in part, because the company said it could no longer provide costeffective services for such a growing, increasingly urbanized city.
The firefighters fought for a public department in Scottsdale because municipalities typically provide a higher, and more expensive, level of service, said Jeff Jensen, a Rural/ Metro firefighter.
When a public department determines what equipment to purchase and how many firefighters to place on a truck, they only have to consider what its residents are willing to pay through their taxes.
Private companies must look at making a profit before upgrading their services, Jensen said. "They might not be able to afford it," he said.
Rural/Metro operates its engines with three firefighters on them. Its dispatch system is not linked to neighboring municipal fire departments.
With a Scottsdale department, a majority of the engines will run with four firefighters, and the city is joining a Valleywide dispatch system.
But in getting those things, some of the firefighters’ professional lives are changing. Staffing at certain stations is being shifted around to accommodate four-person engine crews, forcing some employees to move from familiar workplaces.
Many of the firefighters contacted for this article declined comment, citing concerns that what they said might upset Scottsdale officials. In addition, the city has agreed to only hire firefighters in "good standing" with Rural/ Metro and the company could alter their status in the final days, they said.
A new set of rules governing how they live in the stations is coming down, Jensen and Debruyckere said they have been told, but the firefighters said they do not know precisely what those rules are.
"I didn’t see a lot of structure in the stations and I didn’t see a lot of similarity between the stations," McDonald said.
Under Rural/Metro, employees were spilt into two shifts, working 60 hours a week with a rotating crew, said Garrett Olson, a Scottsdale deputy chief in charge of training. With the Scottsdale department, stations will be divided into three shifts, each working 56 hours a week with the same crew.
Having firefighters work with the same group creates a "seamless" system where each employee knows what the other is going to do at an emergency.
"Literally you’re working with the same three or four guys. Everyday you come to work, they come to work, too," McDonald said.
Scottsdale has also added the position of "engineer" who is responsible for driving the firetruck. Rural/Metro had no such position.
Each station must have three engineers, requiring firefighters to be transferred to fill those quotas, Olson said. However, he said, Scottsdale has committed to leave at least one employee from each engine company where they are.
Other changes involve the firefighters’ union. During the hiring process, it pressed members across the state not to apply for Scottsdale jobs until all the company’s employees working in the city were hired, said Steve Springborn, president of Local 3878, United Firefighters of Maricopa County.
The city and firefighters ignored the request.
"We’ll still be a union that represents the firefighters, but we will not have any bargaining rights with the city and we’re not looking to seek them," Springborn said. "And so long as the city is looking out for us, there’s no reason for us to seek that recognition. If something changes in the future, then that’s a different story."
Springborn said he could not think of a situation in which that would be necessary. Scottsdale has already proved itself, he said.
Debruyckere and Jensen said they are not much interested in talking about their time at Rural/Metro.
"It’s just different, it’s hard to describe. I don’t want to talk negative about Rural/ Metro. I worked for them 21 years," Debruyckere said.
But in four days, he and more than 200 of his Rural/ Metro cohorts will start their first year with Scottsdale Fire Department.