Private Firefighters Are Popular in Arizona

Published February 1, 2007

Use of private firefighters and paramedics has been a longstanding practice in Arizona, where Scottsdale-based Rural/Metro Corporation runs 37 fire stations, making it the second-largest fire department in the state.

Rural/Metro, established in the 1950s, has 8,000 employees in 24 states. Its main service is providing emergency and non-emergency medical transportation and other safety-related services to municipal, residential, commercial, and industrial customers in about 400 communities.

But in Arizona the company has also filled a niche by providing fire services in areas that otherwise would not have fire protection, such as unincorporated areas outside municipalities. The company’s main service areas are outside Phoenix, Tucson, and Yuma.

Service to Subscribers

While some of the service is provided to fire districts with taxing powers, most of it is provided on a subscription basis to property owners.

“Primarily, it’s an individual agreement between us and the property owner,” said Rural/Metro Fire Chief Gary Morris, who spent 30 years with the Phoenix fire department before joining Rural/Metro.

“Rates are typically below what it would cost for a fire district to offer the service,” Morris continued. “That’s the primary means of funding. The other method is if a property owner does not have an agreement with us, there is a standard charge for service that is delivered. It’s like calling out a plumber.

“We don’t say no; we just go,” Morris said. “Dispatchers have no idea if a caller is a subscriber or not. We frequently go well outside service areas to assist on fire or medical emergencies.”

Paramedics in addition to firefighters man all apparatus in the Phoenix region. In the Tucson area there is at least one paramedic on each pumper crew, with four persons on each crew.

High Service, Training Levels

“It’s rare to see four-member crews in rural county operations,” Morris said. “The town of Carefree, with a population of 3,800 in high-end luxury homes, passed a mix of taxes to fund their service. The town has one fire truck and an ambulance crew on duty every day. You don’t usually see that level of service for a town of that size.”

Morris said Rural/Metro prides itself on customizing service to communities, and on its training.

“Our recruit training academy program is longer than Phoenix’s fire training,” Morris said. “We have a five-station development center [with command simulators] that exceeds anything in the Phoenix area. [Officer candidates] must command residential and commercial property fires to pass the course. Our standards are high. We deliver equal or better training than other fire departments.

“There’s been a long argument about public versus private,” Morris said, “but the public really doesn’t care about that. They just want to know that when help is needed, it will be there.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.