Superior was only five days into 2014 when it had its first three-alarm fire. The Superior Fire Department, assisted by fire departments from Queen Valley and Apache Junction, quickly extinguished a residential blaze on West Palo Verde, despite high winds that could have spread to nearby homes. Fire damage was restricted to the house where it started and while the human occupants were away, two dogs in the house were rescued.
Yet there were several criticisms posted on Facebook that the Superior Fire Department was “ineffectual” due to the need to call in for outside help, especially with two and three-alarm fires on the rise.
These criticisms, based on an investigation by the Superior Sun, do not jibe with the facts. In reality, the Superior Fire Department meets national standards for a rural community of its size and frequency of fires. And its use of outside help in exceptional circumstances is the norm in rural communities nationwide.
“The Superior Fire Department’s size and challenges are similar, but not identical to, those of surrounding departments,” Fire Chief Todd Pryor factually explained. “We have a high call volume for our size, and we have the only fire department our size in rural Pinal County that also runs a transport ambulance. This requires a wider range of skills and higher level of certification than either a pure EMS or pure fire agencies.”
The number of structural fires (involving houses and commercial buildings) is low, with only five in 2013 and six in 2012, with two of the latter in Queen Valley. This, Chief Pryor noted is average for the community, and only about half received an assist from and outside fire agency. The rest in the past two years were brush fires (42) and car fires (22).
“We average about 90 fire calls per year, including false alarms, gas leaks, lines down, illegal burns, and other types of calls. We also average about 620 emergency medical calls per year,” Chief Pryor noted.
The number of two-alarm fires results from an automatic aid agreement with the Queen Valley Fire Department. Whenever a structural fire is reported in Superior, the call is automatically relayed to Queen Valley, which dispatches its fire engines to Superior, where unless they are called back will arrive minutes after the in town fire units arrive. The Superior Fire Department likewise receives and responds to calls involving structural fires in Queen Valley.
When a fire is exceptionally bad, Superior can call for help from a larger fire department under a mutual aid agreement with other fire districts east of Phoenix. When a three-alarm fire occurs in Superior, the extra assistance will usually be dispatched from Apache Junction.
Such aid agreements enable fire departments to prepare for the ordinary without expending financially for the extraordinary that may be needed only on rare occasions.
While most brush fires are outside Superior’s jurisdiction, Superior firefighters respond under mutual aid with the state forestry service.
Superior currently has five full-time firefighters, with two on duty at any given hour. Superior also has seven in town reserves (volunteer firefighters) and 15 out of town reserves. “Reserves provide varied services for the town, and a day rarely goes by where their contributions are not felt,” Chief Pryor said.
All members have, or are currently in training for, Arizona State Certifications in: Firefighter 1 and 2, Haz-mat Operations, EMT, and Wildland Firefighter 1. This is the basic requirement of membership, taking about a year of college level courses, but most have more advanced certifications, he explained.
The staffing of the Superior Fire Department meets the national standard 2010 of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for staffing for split professional/volunteer agencies, with a five volunteer surplus.
“The Superior Fire Department faces special challenges posed by both the town’s demographics and the terrain,” Chief Pryor noted. “The Pinal County Community Urban Interface Plan rates Superior as a high risk community, and we have a higher than average amount of wildland fires in our area. This is due to many factors, but the high slopes with denser vegetation than the valley and warmer temperatures than the high desert contribute.”
Queen Valley Fire Chief Cecil Findlay added that Superior, being an older community, also is at risk of having a more structural fires, due to “aging wooden structures and older electrical wiring.” Queen Valley’s housing skews newer due to it becoming popular with retired people who have moved there is recent years, he noted.
Being more than adequate to handling current firefighting needs has not dampened the Superior agency’s desire to upgrade and provide better service.
“We continue to seek funding sources for better equipment and training, but financial realities shape fire departments to a very high degree,” Chief Pryor explained. “Fire coverage is always based on financial conditions before fire conditions. Fire departments are funded by property tax, and therefore the per-capita funding is lower in challenged communities than healthy ones. As the community produces higher property values, more funding will become available, and expanded service will become possible.”
In the meantime, Superior Town Manager Margaret Gaston promised to help the department find funding through available grants to keep it ahead of the curve on firefighting skills and technology.
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