A Gilbert councilman and a union leader are calling for the town to relax its policy of not responding to emergencies on county islands, following a fire that destroyed a mobile home last week.
Vice Mayor Dave Crozier and Bryan Jeffries, president of a union representing Gilbert firefighters, are advocating for a life safety initiative that would require the town to ensure no lives are lost in any county island emergency.
Crozier said he will ask the Town Council to reconsider the current policy, which dictates that the Gilbert Fire Department will make “no intentional response” to county islands.
He said town taxpayers should not be asked to pay to put out fires. But, he wants the policy rewritten to allow the fire department to respond to all county emergencies only to ensure life safety and prevent loss of life in fires and medical emergencies where ambulances may not be equipped to respond.
“Most of the people I’ve talked to said, ‘I can support that. I don’t want anybody to die over this,’” Crozier said.
Under current policy, if Gilbert firefighters are inadvertently called to the scene of an island fire, they will ensure all lives are safe, but will not put out the fire or save structures.
About 10:30 p.m. May 23, a fire spread from a double-wide mobile home at 12849 S. Higley Road to a fifth-wheel trailer and sent shrapnel flying when propane tanks exploded.
Gilbert firefighters went to the area near Loop 202’s Santan Freeway but determined the fire was on a county island and the private Rural/Metro Fire Department also had been notified. Gilbert firefighters determined that no lives were at risk and waited for Rural/Metro to take the call.
At 10:50 p.m., Rural/Metro arrived and after an hour the fire was under control. No one was hurt, but the mobile home, and trailer were destroyed.
Fire investigators have ruled the damage is too extensive to determine a cause of the blaze, said Alison Cooper, Rural/Metro spokeswoman.
Gilbert Fire Chief Collin De-Witt said his department does not knowingly respond into the county in line with town policy. But “we’re always going to do life safety. That direction is clear,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt said the town will not be alerted about many of the fires, since most calls are received by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and forwarded to Rural/Metro. The private company its subscription fire service to county islands in the Gilbert area Sept. 30, but will still put out fires.
Jeffries of United Mesa Fire Fighters is advocating the town adopt a policy to ensure all lives are saved in county island emergencies, as more than 4,300 county island residents continue to go without fire protection in the Gilbert area.
“The position that we detest is having to have any restraints on responding to people when they need our help,” said Jeffries, a Mesa Fire Department captain. “We don’t like getting into battles between whose political boundaries are in existence.”
The union also supports legislation sent Tuesday to the governor’s office which would allow noncontiguous county islands to form a fire district, which could force municipalities to provide the coverage in return for a fee collected in property taxes. If signed, the law — if not challenged — would take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends.
Meanwhile, Rural/Metro will be sending a bill for the cost of fighting the fire to the property owner, which is recorded by the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office as being Linda Fincher of Prescott. Fincher couldn’t be reached for comment.
Costs to put out the fire, which kept firefighters on scene overnight, could add up to thousands of dollars, including $100 an hour per firefighter and $1,000 an hour per fire engine.
Members of the Valley Business Owners (and Concerned Citizens), who sharply criticize the town’s fire policy, are seeking to raise money to help victims of the blaze and the landowner.
A week after flames ripped through the mobile home and trailer, little remains of the structures.
A chain-link fence with barbed wire at the top surrounds the gravel yard where charred wooden studs from the mobile home stand at an angle, and a fifth-wheel trailer looks crushed and melted.
Small propane tanks dot the yard and a nearby dirt road. Blackened school books litter the ground near the burned fifth-wheel. A Gilbert fire station on Warner Road can be seen in the distance.
Under the bright sun Thursday afternoon, Angie Leckington sat in the shade near a mobile home looking at the dirt. An insurance adjustor roamed through the charred property.
Leckington said she and her husband, Brad, who lived in the fifth-wheel trailer, didn’t feel like talking about the fire. She said they feel sick; the impact had finally hit them.
The couple lived with their 16-year-old daughter in the trailer. The mobile home was being renovated and used for storage.
Leaders of an effort to provide fire service to island residents who either can’t or won’t annex into Gilbert said they don’t want this to happen again. Tony Hyland, a longtime island resident, said the town is creating a legacy of letting homes burn.
“We don’t want to see children and adults and the infirm burn up while they stand there and watch it,” Hyland said.
Donna Davis, who opposed her annexation into town, said the fire is a result of a “hostile, confrontational posture” that Gilbert adopted, instead of “a collaborative, problem-solving approach.”
But town officials say they gave county islanders notice that they would not provide service for a fee and that annexation was the only option.
“I think everybody is sorry that it happened,” Mayor Steve Berman said. But he said dangerous substances at the fire confirmed his concerns about sending Gilbert firefighters to fight a blaze on a county island, where there could be propane tanks and other hazards firefighters don’t know about.
Crozier said in this case he doesn’t believe the Gilbert firefighters who watched the blaze could have put it out, since there were no nearby fire hydrants, and they carried only 300 gallons of water in their truck.
It does cost the town to send out a truck with firefighters, even when they don’t fight a fire.
Based on recent figures with Gilbert’s former mutual aid agreement with Rural/Metro, it could cost as much as $1,350 for the initial response to a fire call.
While town officials have cited liability as one reason they won’t put out county fires, Crozier said courts have routinely supported fire department decisions to save lives.