By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
A pair of fire districts separated by nearly 60 miles of roadway but sharing one mission took an important first step in shared management last week.
The Sun Lakes Fire District near Chandler and the North County Fire & Medical District conducted the first joint board meeting under the auspices of their combined entity, the Arizona Fire & Medical Authority, July 27 at the authority’s headquarters, 18818 N. Spanish Garden Drive, Sun City West.
Continuing a process begun in March, the governing body — comprised of three members of the NCFMD board and two from SLFD — conducted a trio of back-to-back meetings, one for each of the still-distinct local districts followed by a third meeting for the AFMA board.
“This is the first of the meetings in this format, with one after the other,” said AFMA Fire Chief Robert Biscoe.
The chief, a strong proponent of the joint powers agreement that formed AFMA, said the move will save money by consolidating administration and allowing both local districts to focus on line staff and service delivery.
“I really think this is what we all should be looking at fire department-wise across the Valley,” Mr. Biscoe said. “We need to reduce the overhead and drive that savings down to the fire trucks and ambulances.”
The new board — comprised of David Wilson (chairman), Dick Cherry and Diane Cheney of NCFMD with Forrest Kohler (clerk) and John Crawford of SLFD — got down to business, hearing department reports and voting to advance legal and accounting procedures associated with finalizing formation of the JPA. Beyond the nuts and bolts of the meeting, officials were already touting the value of the newly minted fire authority.
Assistant Chief Tim Van Scoter said enhanced staffing due to the JPA improved the operational capabilities of the local districts and allowed both to help fight wild fires this summer as part of Arizona’s Central Arizona Wildland Response Team.
“We have sent multiple wildland deployments already this year,” said Mr. Van Scoter, adding that formation of AFMA has bolstered SLFD’s ability to participate in CAWRT and allowed them to deploy crews to fight wildland fires in Arizona and elsewhere for the first time.
“They couldn’t do it before, they didn’t have the people. Now they can, because of the JPA,” said Mr. Van Scoter. “So, our two groups have been blended together into one resource group to send out. That has been a big improvement.”
Mr. Biscoe echoed praise for AFMA, claiming better staffing levels and operational capabilities for both districts.
“The numbers in this working relationship over time will show it’s going to be successful and have a very positive impact on both communities,” said Mr. Biscoe.
By reducing overhead costs, mainly by reducing top level administrative staff, AFMA was able recently to hire 14 new emergency services personnel, which will enable the districts to deliver more, better services without increasing costs, he said.
“It’s a combination of EMTs and paramedics. They’re civilians, so it’s ambulance staffing,” Mr. Biscoe said, explaining the addition enables the districts to meet industry-standard requirements and reduce response times in their communities.
“We had some vacancies in North County as well. By improving staffing on the ambulances, we’re able then to staff the fire trucks back to four firefighters per day, which is the Valley standard,” Mr. Biscoe said. “They’re out on the trucks providing services right now, so it’s a good thing.”
Though AFMA governance and operations are now fully underway, technical difficulties have stalled the rebranding of the combined agency. The project to launch the new website — www.afma.az.gov — is being led by Mr. Biscoe personally, but will take a few more months to complete because of difficulties in working with the vendor who administrates the current website. They are making progress and anticipate launching the new site soon, he said.
“It may take several months, but there will be a completely new, modernized website,” Mr. Biscoe said.
Assistant Chief Troy Maloney, who oversees the authority’s community risk management and support services, said the process of rebranding personnel and equipment is already happening. A vendor has inventoried their equipment to devise a rollout plan, which will require several months to complete. Eventually, the various vehicles and apparatus will share a unified paint and logo scheme.
“Uniforms have been distributed and crews are already wearing them,” Mr. Maloney said. “We will give priority to front line vehicles and it will be an ongoing process.”
A substantial gift
In other business, representatives of Arizona Public Service and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station were on hand to hand over title to a 2003 Ford Expedition equipped for use by emergency services. The vehicle, which was due for decommissioning after serving in the power plant’s fire department, was still in excellent shape when APS reached out to offer the donation.
“They just called us up,” said Mr. Van Scoter. “Basically, they have a life expectancy for their vehicles out there and they’d had it since 2003. We’re not going to use it as a front line vehicle, but we absolutely can use it for a backup and for doing some of our other programs. We have vehicles older than this one that we do this with.”
He said AFMA will make good use of the donated vehicle, which Palo Verde, despite the vehicle’s age, had only put 60,000 miles on.
“Yeah, it’s gently used,” Mr. Van Scoter added.
The vehicle could shuttle board members from the West Valley to Sun Lakes for future AFMA meetings or to bolster the district’s Fire Corps program, which was created by the Department of Homeland Security to foster community voluntarism to support fire districts and allow them to focus on service delivery in their communities.
Going forward, district and authority board meetings will take place on the fourth Thursday of each month, with every third meeting being conducted in Sun Lakes. The next spate of meetings is slated for 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24 at AFMA’s headquarters in Sun City West. The meeting after that will be hosted 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28 at the Maricopa County Library, 9330 E. Riggs Road, Sun Lakes.