Scottsdale has found there is no manual explaining how to build a fire department.
Equipment that will allow its firefighters to breathe in buildings choked by flame and smoke arrived only a month ago, leaving crews short on time to train with the new gear.
The firefighters’ protective clothing, called "turnouts," is somewhere on a truck between Kentucky and Scottsdale.
Pygmy owls’ nests stalled the installation of radio equipment at one fire station, and the cost of that equipment jumped $1 million above what the city had projected.
"We had a lot of those kinds of challenges that, you know, you just kinda pull your hair out going, ‘Why can’t this just go like the plan?’ " said Scottsdale Fire Chief William McDonald, who started his new job in June 2004. "But on the other hand, we outfitted an entire fire department in less than a year."
Scottsdale is only a few days from doing something fire industry experts say has never been done: Building a fire department from scratch for a city of more than 200,000.
Rural/Metro Corp., the private firefighting company that has served Scottsdale for more than 50 years, is pulling its operations from the city Friday.
If all goes well, the company is to leave without a bang. McDonald said he hopes no one hears even a whisper.
A NEW CHAPTER
The Scottsdale Fire Department has been created almost from scratch. Its staff completed projects in months that normally would require years.
McDonald will soon find out if all the moving parts he has pieced together work when they have to. Rural/Metro started in Scottsdale in 1952 and has been the company the city turned to when buildings or brush caught fire.
The company announced in November 2003 that it would end its service to the city when its contract expires. Though anticipated, the company’s departure will be sudden.
On Thursday, Rural/Metro will respond to emergency calls as it has for decades. The next day, it will not.
Scottsdale’s relationship with Rural/Metro has kept it from ever starting its own fire department. Rural/Metro is a homegrown company, starting with one fire truck, and expanding on a national scale, with its headquarters firmly rooted in the Scottsdale area.
"Because of the history — we started here — we hung on and served Scottsdale well," said Kurt Krumperman, Rural/ Metro’s vice president in charge of federal relations.
Before the firm announced its departure, voters soundly defeated a firefighter and union-backed initiative to remove Rural/Metro from the city. If it had passed, Scottsdale would have had to establish a fire department in just six months.
"We know today that even with the 19 months we gave the city, in terms of notice, is pushing it," Krumperman said.
By the time Rural/Metro decided it could no longer make a profit serving Scottsdale, it was the Valley’s fourth-largest city.
Every few years, a town will shed its reliance on Rural/ Metro and launch a municipal department, said Tempe Fire Chief Cliff Jones.
Scottsdale waited so long that the transition is of historic proportions, with numerous fire industry onlookers paying attention, Jones said.
"That for us makes it that much more interesting. We haven’t done this," he said.
National fire industry experts agreed with Jones and said there is no precedent for building a fire department for a city of Scottsdale’s size. Cities and their fire departments usually grow up together.
They begin small, with a single fire engine roaming around town. If a city sprawls for miles, the department has been right there with it, building an intricate network of stations and radio towers.
Scottsdale has caught up quickly and that network is almost done, said Joe Hindman, technology director for the Scottsdale Police Department. For the past year Hindman has overseen construction of a $2.1 million radio system to replace Rural/Metro’s.
The system is an expansion of the Phoenix Fire Department’s communication network. Rural/Metro firefighters for years have experienced radio blackouts, or certain areas where their hand-held radios do not work.
A Scottsdale analysis of the problem found that Rural/ Metro’s radio system, built to favor the longer antennas on fire engines, could be relied upon only 20 percent of the time when firefighters were on foot.
That was unacceptable, McDonald said.
Scottsdale Fire will test its new radio towers this week. Firefighters will simultaneously be trying out more than $5 million in new equipment, including six miles of fire hose.
The fire engines and ladder trucks, which the city has always owned, have had some of the most technologically advanced computer equipment available installed, McDonald said.
Those computers are designed to link Scottsdale vehicles to the Valley’s satellite-assisted automatic-aid dispatch system, which is also run by the Phoenix Fire Department. McDonald said their system is far superior to that maintained by Rural/ Metro. The system is designed to send the closest vehicle to each incident.
Rural/Metro relied on a series of mutual aid agreements to ensure that if help was needed, it came from neighboring fire departments. However, that system required a telephone call between organizations, costing firefighters and paramedics precious time, said Bob Khan, a Phoenix assistant fire chief.
Under contract with Rural/ Metro, Scottsdale spent about $19 million on fire protection. The fire department budget has more than $26 million in expenses — too much some officials argue.
All these advances are great, but at what cost, Scottsdale Councilman Jim Lane asked.
During the 2003 election, Lane led the effort to keep Rural/Metro. Because the organization is private, it could keep its costs down, he said.
Scottsdale Fire Department is not scrapping everything Rural/Metro used.
Of the 258 Scottsdale Fire Department employees, more than 200 will slide over from Rural/Metro’s ranks.
Technically, none of the firefighters work for the city just yet. Their shirts still say "Rural/Metro."
"Most of the directions I give are to people who don’t actually work for us," McDonald said. "It’s a huge awkwardness."
McDonald has made it a priority that Scottsdale fire employees get used to working with the same colleagues every shift to create a seamless environment where each firefighter knows how the other operates. Almost every firefighter will be assigned a station and will work with the same people each shift.
"It’s kinda like a surgical team working together," said Garrett Olson, a Scottsdale deputy chief in charge of training. "You wouldn’t want to throw in a new surgeon into a team that is doing bypass surgery."
Despite some nervousness, several firefighters have said McDonald has largely made them feel comfortable as they move from one organization to another. Each met the chief as he interviewed hundreds of applicants.
City Manager Jan Dolan handpicked McDonald without the exhaustive national search commonly used when Scottsdale makes a high-profile hire. Dolan met McDonald while serving on a fire-protection committee with him in California, where they both worked before coming to Scottsdale.
From that, Dolan said she found he knew seemingly everything about where the fire industry is headed. McDonald started as a firefighter in 1978, and spent the next 25-plus years working his way up the ranks.
"When you talk to him — and I’m sure this is what the firefighters are talking about — he knows what it means to go into a burning building," Dolan said. "He knows what it means to have strong communication links and technology and the right equipment to fight that fire."