Scottsdale Fire Department celebrates 10th anniversary

The announcement came over the alarm system at midnight: It was officially July 1, 2005, and it was time to switch shirts.

Changing uniforms at exactly midnight may sound unusual, and it was for the Scottsdale firefighters on duty that evening, when the city transitioned from Rural/Metro Fire to its own department after more than 50 years with the private, for-profit service.

But as the department celebrates this 10-year milestone, Fire Chief Tom Shannon said it faces a host of new challenges, from retirement and pensions to injuries among older firefighters.

Still, the department, with 263 firefighters and 20 other employees, has come a long way since the city began preparing for its own service about 18 months before the transition. It owns its own hoses now, as well as all of the trucks.

“We didn’t have anything to start with,” said Willie McDonald, the department’s first fire chief, who now leads the Las Vegas department. “We had a hard deadline and that was it.”

Division Chief John Whitney said, “The city didn’t own anything on the trucks. We literally drove to a storage unit, emptied the trucks, drove to a warehouse and got new equipment.”

Now, as the department enters its second decade, it faces more grown-up problems, such as what to do when several hundred of its firefighters and employees are eligible for retirement and pensions in 2025. That’s one consequence of them all having the same official start date with the organization.

Or what to do about the climbing average age of firefighters, as the city pension fund doesn’t take into account the decades of work employees may have put in before the transition. Those uncounted years may force firefighters to delay their retirement until they earn a city pension, putting increasingly older men and women on trucks headed to dangerous rescues.

Or how to stem the flow of firefighters retiring for medical, rather than personal, reasons.

“With a born-on date of July 1, we knew we would have this challenge,” Shannon said. “If we get to 10 years from now and the majority of those 20-year folks are eligible to retire … the impact on the pension system is significant.”

The loss of institutional knowledge and experience would hit the team hard as well, Scottsdale Fire Marshal Jim Ford said.

“It would be like remaking a fire department. And then that goes another 20 years down the road and you have to just keep remaking it.”

While the department was able to predict the retirement problems, the recession put the city as a whole behind on drafting long-term solutions, Shannon said.

“I can’t wait another five years to figure this out,” he said. “I have to figure this out, like, three years ago. It’s only in the past year or so that we’ve been able to catch our breath.”

And although the ultimate deadline isn’t for another 10 years, the city doesn’t have any solutions in sight.

As the third chief at the helm of the department, Shannon has charged himself with bringing the organization up to the status of other “full -realized” teams in the Valley.

Around 80 percent of the firefighters employed by Scottsdale transferred from Rural/Metro during the switch, with the city filling in the other 20 percent from other local departments and recruits from as far away as Georgia.

For the department to truly flourish, it’ll need at least six more firefighters and enough other employees to coordinate outreach, education and prevention efforts, Shannon said.

After the transition, the Scottsdale department joined the automatic aid system in which fire departments across the Valley coordinate emergency responses, equipment and training.

The partnerships have sparked some new ideas for Scottsdale, including a program with HonorHealth that sends firefighters and nurse practitioners on home visits to help prevent medical and safety emergencies before they happen.

“Our end goal is to put ourselves out of business,” Whitney said.

As the department works toward that goal, McDonald and Shannon echo each others’ thoughts on both the past 10 years and the present.

“It was a lot of work, but it was great work,” McDonald said. “I consider this a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

And as for challenges of the future, Whitney said, “I would put our guys against anyone.”

Article source: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/scottsdale/2015/07/01/scottsdale-fire-celebrates-th-anniversary/29561565/