Nineteen Valley cities and towns participate in a satellite-assisted dispatch system operated by the Phoenix Fire Department.
Scottsdale isn't one of those cities.
Supporters of a city-run department call that a good reason for Scottsdale residents to vote May 20 in favor of creating a municipal fire department. Scottsdale currently contracts its fire service with Rural/Metro Corp., which isn't connected to the regional system.
The system routes all emergency calls for participating fire departments to a dispatch center in downtown Phoenix, sharing resources and operating unofficially as a Valleywide department.
Scottsdale is the only major Valley city that doesn't participate in what is called the "automatic aid" system.
While the technology issue is not officially part of the ballot language, supporters say approving a municipal department would be the first step in hooking up with the system.
"I'm very hesitant to even weigh in on this because I don't want it to be a Phoenix issue; it's a Scottsdale issue," said Bob Khan, Phoenix assistant fire chief. "But I do see it as being a public safety issue and a fire safety issue. That being said, you really can't get around the fact that there are 19 cities in the system, and it works really well, and it's seamless to the person whose house is on fire."
Rural/Metro supporters counter that the company's fire service has been efficient for more than five decades.
They also argue that connecting to the satellite system — and installing long-term infrastructure to support the system — would be financially devastating to a city grappling with its worst budget crunch in 30 years.
In addition, they say that because of Scottsdale's unusual geography — its northern and eastern borders are mostly desert, and it's located near a handful of smaller communities served by Rural/Metro — the automatic aid system would be less effective than in other cities.
"It's not a matter of whether automatic aid is good or not. It's a great system," said Steve Randall, chief of Rural/Metro Fire Department. "But there are just a few areas where it could help. The answer to faster response times is exactly what Scottsdale is doing. It is building more fire stations."
The satellite technology tracks the exact location of the firetrucks at all times, allowing rapid dispatch of the closest and most appropriate truck.
"It doesn't matter if a Glendale truck goes into Phoenix or a Phoenix truck goes into Glendale — they get the same service," said Louise Smith, Phoenix Fire Department communications coordinator.
Rural/Metro has equipped nine trucks with global positioning systems in Scottsdale, a move that will mean faster response times, Randall said. The company hopes to have the systems integrated by the end of June, he said.
Even so, Rural/Metro lacks the automatic aid agreements with participating municipalities to ensure seamless response to a blaze, critics say. The Phoenix system erases borders, they say.
"We are so far behind," said Steve Springborn, a Scottsdale firefighter and local union president leading the charge for a municipal department.
The Mesa Fire Department, which dispatches for Gilbert and Apache Junction, also has an aid agreement with Phoenix. By the end of the year, all three municipalities will be linked on the same system, said Kara Woerth, a Phoenix deputy fire chief.
Phoenix dispatches for the East Valley communities of Chandler, Tempe, Guadalupe and Sun Lakes. Two years ago, Chandler became the most recent city to join the consortium.
"The automatic aid does kind of remove the borders, and not only that but it enhances our response," said Chandler fire Capt. Dan Couch.
In the short term, dispatching through Phoenix would be less expensive than continuing to contract with Rural/Metro, according to Phoenix Fire Department estimates. Over three years, it would save Scottsdale more than $1 million.
But an 11-person Scottsdale committee that analyzed the automatic aid system advised against going with Phoenix in the near future because of infrastructure costs. The radio frequency now used by all fire departments is crowded, and will likely need to be changed to a new frequency in a few years.
This would result in an investment of $8 million to $10 million, the Scottsdale committee stated in a report.
"We found two reasons to put it off and to consider it later on: One was the cost. It was immense," said Jim Lane, co-chairman of the Know Enough to Vote No committee, which supports Rural/Metro. Lane also was a member of the city team that analyzed the system. "The other is that this technology is continually changing."