In March 1977, two children died in a residential structure fire in the Picture Rocks community.
That tragic event spurred the residents of Picture Rocks into an action they already knew was needed. They began a project to establish their own fire district.
Until that time, firefighters had responded from Ina Road, well east of the Interstate 10 highway, and it could take almost an hour for them to arrive. The Picture Rocks Volunteer Fire Department opened for business Dec. 17 of that year, in a little building with a carport for the department's single fire truck.
That first facility served the department until 1983, when the current station was constructed in its first design. It originally housed equipment and vehicles only and had room for the dispatcher on duty, but the firefighters were still volunteers, so there was no need to have sleeping quarters.
As department services expanded and ambulance service was added, it became clear full-time paid firefighters were needed, and the department was manned by a combination of paid and volunteer responders, which helped cut response time. The service area grew, with residences in Picture Rocks and along Sandario Road, so the department evolved into an all-paid operation, with the firefighters and the paramedics on duty every day. This meant that the station had to be expanded to include sleeping quarters and a kitchen. Training quarters and a workout room were added.
As the department added equipment like its tanker, which is a former dairy milk hauler, and specialty trucks like the brush fire truck, truck bays were outgrown. Vehicles were parked in the desert sun, baking hoses, tires and other equipment.
It was time to expand again.
Picture Rocks Fire Chief Kathy Duff-Stewart said an analysis showed it would be cheaper and wiser to build a new building rather than try to bring a worn and outdated building up to code.
So Picture Rocks Fire is building a new facility, at a price of approximately $2.5 million, paid for with bond money. Duff-Stewart said it should be paid off at the completion of construction. All other loans associated with the new facility, such as land acquisition, should be paid in full by the end of 2011.
The building was designed by Breckenridge Group Architects / Planners. It is 9,974 square feet with three double bays for up to six vehicles. It will also have 24 photovoltaic solar cells on the roof that can produce peak power of nearly 5,000 watts of energy to help power the station.
While the current economic situation is hurting people, it worked in favor of the Picture Rocks project, Duff-Stewart said. Because many construction companies were vying for the few jobs available, bids came in much lower than expected.
Dwight Stover, superintendent for general contractor Lang Wyatt Construction, said the project is "on schedule and on budget" for a mid-April 2010 finish date.
While touring the current facility, Division Chief Debra Trimble talked about the sense of "community" fostered between the department and the people they serve. She spoke of how the neighbors would stop in with doughnuts or a home-baked cake, gesturing toward the kitchen counter where the remaining half of a chocolate cake sat. As though on cue, in walked Dr. Emil Tompkins of Tompkins Family Chiropractic with a hand-made, poster-sized "Thank You" card from his staff and patients, and a supply of Lifesaver mints for the "lifesavers" on the department.
Captain Harold Thorsen told about a Canadian family involved in a wreck in their rental car. They weren't injured, but they were going to miss their flight out of Tucson without their car. So members of the department loaded them up along with their belongings and took them to Tucson International Airport on time for departure.
Thorsen says it's that kind of service beyond duty that makes the bond with the community stronger.
While the current building is homey, it shows its 26 years of wear. "I imagine the firefighters will be there with the trucks packed" when the building is ready for occupancy, Duff-Stewart said. It seems they'll be settled in before the first desert dust is.
"I'm looking forward to having the station completed," the chief said.